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'24' FLAMES OUT AT THE END

In the immortal words of Sherry Palmer, "It wasn't supposed to be like this."

After 23 hours watching Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) prevent a nuclear bomb from hitting Los Angeles, trying to save the presidency of David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert) and stop a world war, the season finale of the Fox series, "24" ended with a disappointing bombshell out of left field.

The first 55 minutes were rather routine, with Sherry (Penny Johnson Jerald), the president's vindictive wife, and his chief aide, Mike Novick, predictably redeeming themselves somewhat. They assisted Bauer and the ousted president in proving the recordings that suggested everything was planned by terrorists from three Middle East countries were actually phony.

Then came the bombshell in the final five minutes. Reinstated, President Palmer was determined to assure Americans that the country was safe and they should behave normally. So he addressed the nation before a live crowd, shaking hands with just about everyone who reached out.

Yeah, that's going to happen. On the day a plot by domestic and foreign terrorists to destroy Los Angeles and start World War III was thwarted, the Secret Service is going to allow the president to go out in public.

The president received a hearty handshake from an enthusiastic female, who only the most diehard "24" fans will remember as Mandy, who blew up an airplane in the first season. Mandy turns out to be wearing a glove that has some sort of chemical substance on it. A few minutes later, the president's hand is severely burned and he falls down, apparently near death.

We'll have to wait until next fall to see if President Palmer makes it or not, and why his departure would help the bad guys now. One thing is for sure: Jack, who himself is recovering from multiple traumas, can't save the president this time.

Though the hour was often gripping (especially a shootout scene in the Los Angeles Coliseum) and the final scene was the "shocker" that lived up to the Fox promos, the ending failed my smell test: If obscure characters delivered the shocker, it was going to be a disappointment.

The conspiracy theorist in me suspects that the network, Fox, is to blame and it wanted a cliffhanger. After 23 hours, I would have preferred a cleaner resolution.

Haysbert is a strong actor with a great voice who can do more with less than any actor in the cast. But the series really doesn't need President Palmer next season. His role this year was rather limited anyway.

I suspect we're going to learn next fall about the best way to treat a chemical wound. That's if there is a good way to do it. The writers will have a tougher time convincing the audience there's a good way to get Jack involved in another 24-hour crisis.

Speaking of shockers, ABC's "NYPD Blue" ended its season Tuesday with a much more satisfying hour, even if the wedding of Andy Sipowicz (Dennis Franz) and Connie McDowell (Charlotte Ross) had to be postponed. The delay resulted from the shooting of their lieutenant, Tony Rodriguez (Esai Morales), by a drunken, racist captain out to bring down Andy and as many members of the force as he could.

Just as the wedding was about to happen, Lt. Rodriguez was shot before Detective Rita Ortiz (Jacqueline Obradors) shot his assailant and saved Tony from being hit again.

Though this plot line also was slightly out of left field, it wasn't as contrived as the "24" ending. It also sets up some interesting plot lines next season. Rodriguez, who was pronounced stable at episode's end, really controls whether Andy and Connie will ever get married. After all, they were only able to marry and stay in the same precinct because Tony promised to ignore regulations that prevent it. If he's gone, all bets are off.

And then there's Rita, who has been so emotionally torn up since breaking up with John Clark (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) that she asked for a transfer a few moments before she saved the lieutenant's life. Now that she's a heroine and the shootings are bound to draw this group closer, it's hard to see her leaving. Unless, of course, there are contract issues with Morales or Obradors that haven't yet come to light.

Which brings us to a bombshell regarding "The Practice," the ABC series that was thought to be in jeopardy of being canceled because it was so expensive to produce. The show will go on but without series lead Dylan McDermott and cast members Kelli Williams, Lara Flynn Boyle, Lisa Gay Hamilton, Marla Sokoloff and Chyler Leigh. Only Steve Harris, Camyrn Manheim and Michael Badalucco will be back. McDermott, whose character, Bobby Donnell, left the firm in the season finale, was deemed too expensive to remain a regular after ABC cut the license fee it pays the production company almost in half.

One understands creator David E. Kelley's determination to make this work. He tried to save another of his series, "Chicago Hope," a few years ago without success. But this plan to save "The Practice" is so ridiculous that it is laughable. If this is the only way Kelley could have saved it, then he should have let it die with dignity.

Fox has announced it will premiere a weird series set in Niagara Falls in January. Called "Wonderfalls," it is described as "a funny, provocative and magical one-hour dramedy." The lead is an underachieving twentysomething souvenir shop worker who has a thing about inanimate animal figures. It seems they talk to her, leading her to help others in need and for her to realize the world "is a magical place." It is from the creators of "Star Trek: Voyager" and "Malcolm in the Middle" so it is bound to be strange. There already has been speculation that it is so strange that it could be the annual Fox series that never makes it on the air.

e-mail: apergament@buffnews.com

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