THE SANDS OF TIME 

Writing about the back-and-forth, freakazoid chronology of this week's Rules of Attraction, I couldn't help thinking about the relentlessly forward tick-tock-tick of 24. A new six-DVD set from 20th Century Fox compiles the series' first season, which (for those who live in blissful isolation from television) takes place in real time, chronicling exactly one day in the life of CIA agent Jack Bauer, who is trying to foil an assassination attempt while dealing with a fragile marriage and a teenage daughter who's gone missing.

The premise is one of the most exciting experiments in TV form to take place in ages, and it's an experiment that works beautifully. Split screens propagate willy-nilly when we need to see what's going on in two (or three or four) places at the same time, and the screenplay structures things smartly, so we believe the concurrent action even when, on paper, it stretches reality a bit (look how much the characters drive around in one episode, and check it against L.A.'s freeways ...). Kiefer Sutherland, who has flailed about plenty in poorly chosen films, comes into his own as a leading man here; let's hope Jack Bauer gets a lot of sleep before the second season begins.

Speaking of TV and constrained time periods: maybe Ken Burns bit off more than he could chew with a century's worth of Jazz, but his The Civil War (PBS / Warner Bros.) — which handles a brief, albeit monumental, chunk of our history — is still one of the greatest things ever made for the small screen. Sitting down to re-watch it this week, I found myself sobbing after six minutes. Later, I went back to dissect what Burns had done, and was shocked at his restraint: The fiddle-and-piano soundtrack during that stretch is never cloying, the photographic evidence and quoted material straightforwardly presented; the narrator, David McCullough, is sober throughout — in other words, Burns lets the facts of the matter, both horrific and heroic, move the viewer.

While it would be naïve to call this the complete picture, The Civil War is one of those core texts that should be a part of every American education. Burns tackles his subject from the top down and the bottom up, treating a private's letter home from the front lines with the same respect he shows the Gettysburg Address. Fusing different approaches to the past, he gets the military details in while only rarely sounding like military history, always keeping an eye out for the human beings inside the uniforms, and the human motivations of mighty figures. If only somebody out there in TV land were training such a determined, humanist eye on the wars America is fighting right this minute — hearing the voices being raised right now by thousands of innocent people who are being killed because they live on the wrong part of the planet.

On an infinitely lighter note: This latest wave of TV/DVD reissues brings us the complete Space: 1999 (A&E). This falls squarely into the "Cult TV" category; even die-hard fans are split over the merit of the sci-fi series' second year. Aside from the somber, moody tone and the really great design work on the spaceships and ray guns, I had another reason to be fascinated by re-watching something I only knew from childhood: After seeing creator Gerry Anderson's "Supermarionation" creations lately (Thunderbirds, et al), I was shocked at how much the early episodes of this Anderson-created live-action series resemble that work. Though the puppeteer didn't direct the episodes, he's clearly their auteur: the camera set-ups and moves are the same, the method of generating suspense is identical — hell, Barbara Bain even emotes like a puppet. It's pretty fun stuff, and if the idea of our moon breaking free of its orbit, carrying a few hundred astronauts on adventures through the solar system, seems scientifically unsound ... you should probably rent The Civil War and leave the escapism to the rest of us.

More by John DeFore

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