By STEVEN JOHNSON
The Sleeper Curve
SCIENTIST A: Has he asked for anything special?
SCIENTIST B: Yes, this morning for breakfast . . . he requested something called ''wheat germ, organic honey and tiger's milk.'' SCIENTIST A: Oh, yes. Those were the charmed substances that some years ago were felt to contain life-preserving properties. SCIENTIST B: You mean there was no deep fat? No steak or cream pies or . . . hot fudge? SCIENTIST A: Those were thought to be unhealthy.
— From Woody Allen's ''Sleeper''
n Jan. 24, the Fox network showed an episode of its hit drama ''24,'' the real-time thriller known for its cliffhanger tension and often- gruesome violence. Over the preceding weeks, a number of public controversies had erupted around ''24,'' mostly focused on its portrait of Muslim terrorists and its penchant for torture scenes. The episode that was shown on the 24th only fanned the flames higher: in one scene, a terrorist enlists a hit man to kill his child for not fully supporting the jihadist cause; in another scene, the secretary of defense authorizes the torture of his son to uncover evidence of a terrorist plot.
But the explicit violence and the post-9/11 terrorist anxiety are not the only elements of ''24'' that would have been unthinkable on prime-time network television 20 years ago. Alongside the notable change in content lies an equally notable change in form. During its 44 minutes -- a real-time hour, minus 16 minutes for commercials -- the episode connects the lives of 21 distinct characters, each with a clearly defined ''story arc,'' as the Hollywood jargon has it: a defined personality with motivations and obstacles and specific relationships with other characters. Nine primary narrative threads wind their way through those 44 minutes, each drawing extensively upon events and information revealed in earlier episodes. Draw a map of all those intersecting plots and personalities, and you get structure...