When I was offered the role, I didn’t accept it. I refused it. I obviously had my own issues with playing a terrorist.
— Shohreh Agdashloo, Newsday (9 January 2005)

Spare me your sixth grade, Michael Moore logic.
— Secretary of Defense Heller (William Devane), “7am-8am”

Another season, another sad bad day in Jack Bauer’s (Kiefer Sutherland) boystown. This even as he’s opted for “something different” — a job outside CTU, a new romance, and a much appreciated break from daughter Kim (Elisha Cuthbert). He starts this fourth season in a swank hotel room, nuzzling his new girlfriend and adjusting his tie. Poor Jack. But for all his effort, he’s only jumped from the frying pan into the fire. More precisely, the Department of Defense.

Jack’s new gig, quickly laid out and dismantled in the first three episodes (roughly, 7am to 10am), has him working for the crusty, self-important-seeming Defense Secretary, James Heller (William Devane), and in bed with the old man’s beautiful daughter and apparent life manager Audrey (Kim Raver). (Jack first appears on screen checking himself in a multiple mirror, all worn out and fragmented in his first 30 seconds.) Dad doesn’t know of their liaison and she wants to keep it that way, as her previous marriage is not yet wholly over — you get the feeling here that Heller is extraordinarily out of touch (as are the lovers: Audrey calls Heller “kind of old-fashioned,” but Jack calls him “perceptive”). What Jack and Audrey don’t know yet, as arranged by the series’ intricate time-framing and split-screening, is that a train has been bombed (terrorist alert) and a briefcase has been stolen from one of the victims.

This means that CTU has jerked into action. Now headed by Erin Driscoll (Alberta Watson) and functioning without Jack (whom Driscoll fired for being an “ex-junkie,” following his work on the Salazar case), quite a few steps behind already. They think the attack is the plot, whereas you know it’s only the start. You know this because you’ve seen the Turkish Araz family — Navi (Nestor Serrano), Dina Araz (Shohreh Agdashloo), and son Behrooz (Jonathan Ahdout, who also played Agdashloo’s son in The House of Sand and Fog) — over breakfast out in the burbs, watching news reports of the train bombing and soberly asserting that their important work for the day is underway. Though Behrooz is nervous following his father’s insistence that he stop seeing “that American girl,” Debbie (Leighton Meester), his folks are all business: “What we will accomplish today will change the world,” says dad, “We are fortunate that our family has been chosen to do this. We cannot fail.” (On seeing portions of the first evening’s broadcast, the Council on American-Islamic Relations protested that this depiction “casts a cloud of suspicion over every American-Muslim family out there”; the series’ penchant for changing up stereotypes means the objection might be premature. Or not.)

So far, Dina looks like the series’ most compelling new character: “If we are to succeed,” she insists to her men, “it’s important we are of a single mind.” While Navi appears to call shots, she’s the one granted soulful close-ups. At the same time, she’s shown a remarkable coolness under fire and capacity for violence (in episode four, she kills the “American girl” who’s distracting her son from his mission), but at the same time, her own eyes appear deeply troubled whenever steely Navi moves in for a probing gaze or reassuring caress.

At the same time, the newly configured CTU has retained one character from last year — that most excellent fidgeter Chloe O’Brian (Mary Lynn Rajskub). Unlike the newbies, Chloe misses Jack; and like Jack, she’s smarter than everyone at CTU (at least as the show presents the range of intellect during the first five episodes). From her first scene, Chloe’s up to old tricks, getting unsolicited but crucial illicit intel from an old school friend, scruffy Andrew (Lukas Haas). He’s found the beginnings of what he suspects to be a “major internet attack,” in code that appears “Middle Eastern, like Arabic or Turkish maybe.” (Right, and what else would it be?)

Almost instantly, Chloe runs up against Driscoll, in part because she remains loyal to Jack (and distrusts Driscoll out of hand), and in part because Driscoll has her own issues with difficult children, namely, her bipolar daughter Maya (Angela Goethals), whose phone calls and general acting out repeatedly interrupt single mom Driscoll’s handling of the case at hand. While we might hope that Maya avoids cougars and Kevin Dillon for the season, the other primary daughter — Audrey — is tossed into trouble right away. She’s kidnapped with her father by a terrorist cell operating in California, just as Jack calls her cell to warn her, based on info he’s gotten by abusing a prisoner (Jack always placing his girls’ lives above all legalities). Audrey is locked in a cell and left to cry, perspire, consider suicide and share heart-to-hearts with her dad. Yet again, Jack’s worst nightmare careens into everyone else’s waking life.

He even throws some wrenches into the new team at CTU — including good man Edgar (Louis Lombardi), uneasy Curtis (Roger R. Cross), and suck-up Sarah (Lana Parrilla) — which seems even more insecure, competitive, and distrustful than previous techs. The unit has even added a seeming replacement for the late Sherry Palmer (the irreplaceable Penny Johnson Jerald) in the form of Curtis’ wholly frightful and cutthroat ex, Marianne (Aisha Tyler, who has never been more annoying). The instant she’s inside, this girl is pushing her way into everybody’s business, ostensibly out of crass ambition (Curtis insists that her assertions “come from a very disturbed place”), but just as likely, out of some political or ideological “place,” equally disturbed, of course.

The kidnapping is only the beginning, as the terrorists — all solemn suicide-mission types, at least so far — pledge to put the Secretary on trial for war crimes, to be broadcast over the internet. Not necessarily a bad idea in itself, the proposed trial makes the U.S. administration instantly obsessive about protecting their own international reputation (literally, they start discussing a missile strike against the villains’ headquarters, Heller and Audrey inside, in order to “save face”). As the new, non-Palmer president, John Keeler (Geoff Pierson), flies overhead in Air Force One, Driscoll patches in with absolutely useless information (CTU Is “following possible leads” and working the problem, that sort of doublespeak). One of these potential leads is Heller’s long-haired peacenik son, Richard (Logan Marshall-Green), scheduled to speak against his father’s policies at a rally that very day. Now, however, he’s locked up at CTU in hysterics, cuffs, and sensory deprivation torture, Curtis all up in his face, suspecting the kid set up his dad for the taking (this turn seems too obvious for 24, but maybe that makes it tempting, too).

Fox’s decision to hit viewers with four hours of show right off — over initial Sunday and Monday nights — seems wise, as several plots are already up and entangled; even better, the coming installments are promised without pre-emption. The series has already dished up some time-eating absurdity (Jack dons a ski mask to hold up a gas station, to keep a terrorist in play) and disappointment (Chloe’s been fired for colluding with Jack, but as long as she’s breathing, she might come back). While the cast revamping leaves intact the show’s infamous essential rhythms (tensions mounting, eyebrows arching, beep beep beep), it’s likely that none of the early storylines will stay on track for long. If nothing else, 24 can be counted on to rip through its own premises, transforming current social anxieties and international offenses into jaw-dropping soap opera. Just like the news these days.