With apologies to 'The Simpsons' and 'American Idol,' the best reason to watch Fox Ñ or glue yourself to the TV on Tuesday nights Ñ is the brain-altering, palm-biting, nail-sweating tension of '24.'

It's one of the few dramas that merits the term 'appointment television' Ñ to the extent that if you miss an episode, you'll be on the phone to family and friends to find out if they might have taped it. (If they have, rush right over and grab that baby!)

'24' is the only series that sends me into sensory overload, so much so that it's hard to concentrate on anything other than wondering whether Kiefer Sutherland's character can save Los Angeles from certain doom. It's no easy chore once you realize that '24' represents the number of hours he has to rescue the city after learning that doom is scheduled for later in the day.

Too much is transpiring in

real-time action for us to do anything but watch and stress. But we're talking an entertaining, engrossing stress here, not the kind that settles in when you realize that instead of taping '24,' you've recorded a couple of episodes of 'SpongeBob SquarePants.'

As counterterrorism agent Jack Bauer, Sutherland has catapulted himself to prime-time megastardom in a TV drama landscape that increasingly focuses on ensembles. Aided by a stellar supporting cast (including Dennis Haysbert as President Palmer, the first African-American president), Sutherland carries the series with a newfound magnetism. The tightly written scripts match his style perfectly.

In this second season, viewers are finding the series to be as engrossing as last year's, when Bauer saved then-presidential candidate Palmer from an assassination plot. The big difference this time around is that even more bulging eyeballs are tuning into the action. Thanks to almost unanimous critical acclaim, '24' is giving its competition Ñ NBC's 'Frasier' Ñ a run for its Nielsen money on Tuesday nights.

The show works in part thanks to the new era of terror that has settled over the country following 9-11. Suddenly, a story about a band of squirrelly terrorists planning to set off a nuclear bomb has a gripping reality to it.

Not only do the terrorists want to destroy L.A., but they also want to make sure Bauer's counterterrorism unit is dismantled. The only person Ñ the only person Ñ standing between success and failure is Bauer. And let's hope he gets the job done.

Otherwise, there'd be no Bauer and no '24' next season. That would be real stress.

Pete Schulberg is the host of 'Portland's Morning News' on KPAM (860 AM). Contact him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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