Way Off the Map
'24' Has Lots of Tricks Up Its Sleeve, And Some Involve Local Geography

By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 30, 2009

No one ever said "24" -- the Fox TV series about terrorist conspiracies and the people who stop them -- was a documentary about real events. But it does take place in a real city called Washington, D.C., right?

Well, from the look of things, it's sometimes hard to tell. Every week during this season of the Monday night program, which has moved its setting from Los Angeles to Washington, "24" seems to come up with another new geo-invention about the city and its environs. For anyone who knows anything about local landmarks, streets and place names, "24's" frequent misappropriations and invented locales have become an amusing sidelight to the series' unending series of plot complications.

Last week, for example, the show's indomitable hero, Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland), temporarily thwarted a small gang of domestic terrorists/male models who were trying to get their hands on a vaguely described bioterror weapon. The action took place at the "Port of Alexandria," an apparently bustling, but heretofore unknown, container facility on the Potomac River.

This was just a few hours after Jack had thwarted (he does a lot of thwarting) a group of commandos who had taken over the White House and captured the president. The insurgents entered the executive mansion via a fiendishly clever route: They scuba-dived under it and tunneled into it. According to "24," 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. sits atop a large body of water. (The Tidal Basin? The Potomac? The Chesapeake? Unclear.)

Motorists on "24" routinely defy Washington's time-space-traffic continuum, reaching their destinations in impossibly short order. The White House to Foxhall Road in Northwest Washington, a distance of 3.2 traffic-clogged miles, in five minutes? In rush hour? Good luck! The Beltway to the FBI Building (8.4 miles) in seven minutes? Can do!

In an earlier episode, Bauer breathlessly reports via cellphone that he's "on the Beltway near Bethesda" heading to Virginia. Alas, Jack says he intends to take "the 355" to get there -- which not only will get him lost but betrays the show's L.A.-centric roots. Major roadways in Southern California are routinely referred with the definite article ("the 5," "the 210" or "the Santa Ana"), but here, "the 355" is just plain old Rockville Pike or Wisconsin Avenue, which won't take you to Virginia at all, and certainly wouldn't get you there quickly if it did.

Howard Gordon, "24's" executive producer, concedes that the show's writing staff isn't exactly all that knowledgeable about the lay of our land. "We've all been to Washington," he says from "24's" production offices in Los Angeles, "but none of us are Washington residents. I'm the closest thing. I'm from New York."

The show's chief research tool on Washington geography: "We have a big map in our office."

If so, how to explain the crash of a passenger jet in the alleged Washington suburb of "Edgeboro, Md."? Or that Jack is able to maintain his tail on a suspect on "New York Avenue" by driving across a very large (and utterly imaginary) park?

Gordon says the names and locales need only to be plausible, if not literally accurate, since almost all of the 11 million who watch "24" each week have no idea what's where in the nation's capital. "The only people who really care about this are people with too much time on their hands," he says.

Also, Gordon points out another little thing: "24" is a made-up show. "It's called dramatic license," he says.

Right. Which probably explains why a character -- a fugitive, no less -- can be sitting in his car right in front of the White House, a real-world impossibility given security concerns. Or why there are palm trees in the background as a plane takes off from "National Airport." Or why the season-opening Congressional hearing on "24" started at 8 a.m. In the real Washington, nothing official starts at such an ungodly hour.

Still, all of the Washington imagery on "24" is gratifying to some locals, perhaps most of all the District's Office of Motion Picture and Television Development. The film office helped facilitate "24's" Washington filming, which took place over 10 days in fall 2007. (The start of the current season was delayed by the 2007-08 TV writers' strike.) Crews shot footage at locales such as West Potomac Park, the Tidal Basin, downtown, Georgetown and on the streets around the then-under-construction Nationals Park.

"I'm sure for local pride, folks who live in D.C. would like it to be portrayed as accurately as possible," says Josh Friedman, a spokesman for the film office. "But no matter what, it's always [an economic] boost for the city."

As it happens, "24" is part of a grand tradition of mangling the aesthetics and geography of the capital in film and on TV. Remember the chase scene in the 1987 thriller "No Way Out," in which Kevin Costner's character jumps off the Whitehurst Freeway in Georgetown, runs into the nonexistent Georgetown Metro station and pops up on . . . the Baltimore Metro? Or the closing scene of "A Few Good Men," in which Tom Cruise gazes eastward across the Mall as the sun sets behind the Capitol (no matter that the sun would actually be setting in the other direction)?

Jean Rosales, who detailed dozens of such gaffes in her 2003 book "D.C. Goes to the Movies" (co-written with her husband, Michael R. Jobe), says security restrictions have always forced filmmakers to be creative when shooting in Washington. For instance, when the Park Service turned him down, director Frank Capra had to sneak a small film crew inside the Lincoln Memorial to capture Jimmy Stewart's encounter with Abe in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," she says. But Rosales, a former Washington tour guide, says she understands why Hollywood often gets things intentionally wrong. "There's a lot of the city that no one really recognizes," she says, "and filmmakers always want to get something great in the background."

Well, no worries. After this season, "24" won't have Washington to kick around any longer, and vice versa. Without revealing any spoilers, Howard Gordon offers this intriguingly ambiguous comment about how the current season of "24" plays out: "I can safely say that Washington has been threatened by us for the last time."

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