Last season, 24 ended with the murder of Jack Bauer’s wife, Teri (Leslie Hope). The bearer of the series’ most soap operatic excesses, poor Teri was beaten, kidnapped (twice), raped, temporarily amnesiac, and, at the end of that longest day of Jack‘s life, she revealed to him that she was pregnant. Her subsequent death at the hands of her husband’s ex-mistress almost seemed merciful. For her, at least, the torments were done.

Not so for anyone else on 24, old or new. This goes double for Jack (Kiefer Sutherland), bearing a bit of a grudge regarding the disaster that befell him some 18 months ago. Justifiably angry, unhappy, and unkempt, he registers his misery by his uncombed hair, scruffy beard, and flannel shirt. He’s essentially quit CTU (Counter Terrorism Unit), because he associates the job with the total destruction of his life (the lingering effects hinted at by the fact that he still hasn’t unpacked boxes in his new apartment), and because he’s apparently suicidal (he keeps a gun in the drawer where he keeps his family portrait, on which he gazes wistfully/miserably; see also Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon). Nonetheless, because Jack is such a star agent, he will be reeled back in.

This background means that Jack is, at the start of “Day 2,” ready, in ways far more profound than his fellow agents. He’s prepared for (or mad enough to handle) the appalling violence headed their way. Helpfully, the premiere episode immerses you in an approximate world of hurt right quick. The first, brief, grueling scene takes place in a Seoul, South Korean basement torture chamber, where a sweaty U.S. agent sits in a back room, awaiting breakdown word from a suspect — strung up, zapped, and ravaged — that oh dear, there’s a nuclear device in L.A. and a generically “Arabic” terrorist has “his finger on the trigger.” The torture scene is surely ugly (though, actually, not so bothersome as Ford’s not-nearly-so-clever-as-it-thinks digital-clock-ticking opening commercial, extra long because there are no breaks during the episode), and somewhat startling.

Or not. Now, in its second year, 24 can assume that most everyone knows something about its “groundbreaking” aspects, its “real-time,” hour-long episodes; split screens; restless camera angles and mobility; topical terrorist plotlines. The first season DVD is among the top selling in the nation, so that the show can imagine a knowledgeable, perhaps even enthusiastic viewership for this next installment. (Indeed, some 13.5 million tuned in for the premiere 29 October, to be re-aired on Monday 4 November, replacing the thankfully insta-cancelled girls’ club.)

And so, this first scene comes at you hard. In the “war on terrorism,” the U.S. government rep may have someone else do the dirty deed, but the goal and result are clear enough. Abuse works.

From here, the show splits off into storylines featuring characters who are variously abused and victims of abuse. First, President Palmer (splendid Dennis Haysbert) appears in resplendent peace, fishing with his son Keith (Vicellous Shannon) on a lake in Oregon. Palmer asks after ex-wife Sherry (Penny Jerald), so magnificently devious last season that Television Without Pity deemed her Lady MacPalmer, but the conversation is cut short by urgent news of the nuke. Palmer heads to an underground bunker, where he’s joined by his team: cool-headed chief aide Lynn (Michelle Forbes, a.k.a. Star Trek: TNG‘s fabulous Ensign Ro) and NSA staffer Eric Rayburn (Timothy Carhart), set up here as too eager to counterattack, presuming that the President will eventually go beat up on the “Middle East” (so far, no nations named — the terrorists, members of a group called “Second Wave,” and affiliated governments are just “Middle Eastern”).

Second, the Presidential team calls CTU, who calls Jack. He’s introduced as a pair of shoes in the lower half of a split screen. It’s an appropriately down-and-out effect, underlined by the fact that he’s actually on his way to stalk his daughter Kim (Elisha Cuthbert, California-blonder than before) who is avoiding him because, she says, he reminds her “of mom.” Reasonable. However, Kim has recently taken the nanny job from hell, in that the father, Gary (Billy Burke) is violently abusive (wouldn’t you know?). Mom Carla (Tracy Middendorf) and 9-year-old Megan (Skye McCole-Bartusiak, another Gibson connection, his adorable youngest daughter in The Patriot) live in dread of making a “mistake” that will set him off, whereupon his brutality is captured in predictable handheld swish-pans.

This dark circumstance is already tedious, after the many horrors Kim endured last season (Jack’s domestic sphere again threatened by forces beyond his control: check). Still, its introduction is admirable, even crafty. Directly on a cut from the President getting word, “There’s a situation,” Megan comes screaming past the camera, running in mock-fear from Gary as they play a game. Good moment, less good subplot, though, it’s never safe to second-guess what this show will do episode to episode: Megan may be outsmarting terrorists in the next few hours.

More abuse is bound to show up in the third plotline, involving a terrorist (one of them, anyway), Reza (Phillip Rhys, of the first season of Undressed), who arrives in a bright red Ford Thunderbird (so much for no advertisements during the show), at the home of his fiancée, wealthy blond Marie (Laura Harris), though her older sister Kate (Sarah Wynter) is skeptical. When their father Bob (John Terry) worries that Kate dislikes this fellow her sister will be marrying in less than 10 hours because “he’s from the Middle East,” she demurs, saying only, “It’s something else.” Bob walks away, seemingly satisfied. You, however, are left troubled, because you’re watching 24. Besides, Reza keeps catching Kate’s eye through windows and other internal frames, and he looks “suspicious.”

Even with all this going on outside, compelling action is taking place inside CTU, where, last season, so much betrayal and violence took place, most enacted by Jack’s ex/the mole, Nina (Sarah Clarke), scheduled to reappear later this season (can’t hardly wait). Nice guy Tony (Carlos Bernard) and dogged George Mason (Xander Berkeley) still work at CTU; the several newbies include Michelle (Reiko Aylesworth) and, most surprising and delightful find of the first episode: Darlene! Dan would be proud: Sara Gilbert is playing Paula Schaeffer, an overeager programming whiz recently brought in to the office, who acts like she’s really just a bit undone by the nuclear bomb news. “I don’t think I can do this,” she whines to Tony. He’s kind enough not to slap her, instead instructing her to take it “one task at a time.” Still, her “I’m so weak” behavior makes me suspect her already.

Then Jack shows up, and all bets about what constitutes linear time, logic, or even “tasks,” are pretty much off. He’s raging, ferocious, wanting to trust Tony, still distrusting George (his ostensible and uncontrollably weasely boss from last season), and absolutely positively unwilling to leave Kim open to any sort of even remotely conceivable danger. This understandable jumpiness on his part is highlighted by its juxtaposition with Palmer’s utter calm. During a brief hotline exchange with the Prime Minister” of an unnamed “Middle Eastern” nation (Mike Saad, who played “General Abdullah” on JAG: typecasting?), Palmer displays a frightening intensity and complete self-possession. He could give Martin Sheen a run for his wish-fulfilling-Presidential money. Palmer’s strength and Jack’s lunacy appear at this point to be useful poles for the series’ energies. Last season, Palmer’s campaign/family discord scenes started to overwhelm Jack’s more over-the-top action-spy business.

Also last season, the terrorist attacks of 9-11 convinced 24 producers to cut a scene of a plane blowing up, but they went ahead with the general “terrorism” plot (as Jack works for CTU, it’s clear they had no options). This season, it appears writers and producers have jumped in with both feet, or maybe more accurately, with one and a half feet (that annoying “Middle Eastern” business). This has led to some minor controversy (which will likely be good for ratings), at least as imagined by AOL’s recent poll, which asks, “Does 24‘s terrorism plot hit too close to home?” The two possible answers are “Yes, it’s too much like today’s headlines,” or “No, this is fiction, not reality tv.”

The framing of these “answers” is more telling than anything in the premiere, with regard to how viewers are presumed to respond to terrorism or war. First, this is the poll that AOL is running, opposed to some more useful poll, concerning ballistic fingerprinting, or the incipient campaign against Iraq, or even the upcoming midterm elections. Second, terrorism, as you’ve seen day in, day out, remains a tv issue, whether read as “fiction” or “too much like today’s headlines.” The truth is, these distinctions are conveniences. Abuse — in the name of war, justice, or terrorism — makes headlines, and entertainment is a function of headlines. “Fiction” and “reality” aren’t so much opposites as they are of a piece