'24': All hail the power of Bauer

David Bianculli
New York Daily News

The return of "24" on Fox deserves to be treated differently than most TV dramas.

It's news as well as entertainment, generating intense anticipation and curiosity about the latest adventures of Kiefer Sutherland's indefatigable, never-sleeping Jack Bauer.

It's earned that status. Unlike most serialized dramas of late, which either fade away from lack of interest or inspiration, or vanish partway through for annoying periods of hibernation, "24" continues to do everything right.

And based on the coming sixth season's first four hours, provided for preview, that winning streak remains unbroken.

It's long been apparent, though at first Fox executives were slow to commit, that the show's real-time, 24-hour, 24-episode format of "24" was a master stroke.

The folks at Fox get much more credit, though, for the other high-risk concept that makes "24" such a rewarding TV experience: By holding it until January, and showing every episode without a single pre-emption or repeat, Fox has made "24" its own stand-alone hour of Must-See TV.

The formula is as brilliant as it is difficult to duplicate. The first four hours of a new season of "24" are rolled out over two nights as a megaevent (this year, that's Jan. 14 and 15, after which it settles into its regular 9 p.m. EST Monday slot), setting the stage for the season to come and building enough momentum to keep the "24" train on track until its May season finale.

Last season, you'll recall, "24" opened with the rapid-fire deaths of several key characters, including Dennis Haysbert's President David Palmer, and closed with Jack Bauer being carted off by Chinese government agents. The new season begins 20 months later, with Jack, looking like Rip Van Bauer, about to be freed from having spent that whole time in a Chinese prison, defiantly mute and definitely tortured.

Since it occurs at the virtual start of this new cycle of "24," it's not spoiling much of anything to reveal that the man in the Oval Office is, again, President Palmer - but this time it's brother Wayne (D.B. Woodside), whose inner circle includes both the familiar (Jayne Atkinson as Karen Hayes, now national security adviser) and the new (Peter MacNicol as Tom Lennox).

To keep all the surprises intact, let's limit the basic information to the fact that Chloe (Mary Lynn Rajskub) is still at CTU, along with Curtis (Roger Cross), Milo (Eric Balfour), Morris (Carlo Rota) and boss Bill Buchanan (James Morrison) - and that among the new players, as Jack and company pursue the latest dire terrorist threat, is Alexander Siddig from "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine."

The plot is propelled with deliberate speed, and with truly startling events to climax two of the first four hours. The tension is high, the body count is substantial, and the thrill-ride momentum of "24" swiftly veers viewers away from any nagging lapses of logic or credibility. (My favorite: That an information-treasuring outfit like CTU would devote the giant TV screen in its central headquarters to Fox News Channel.)

"I don't know how to do this anymore," Jack says with a sigh midway into the second hour of his latest very bad day.

Don't believe him.



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