Back in November, I said some pretty harsh things about 24. While I stand by a number of them (I still think the show's "real time" structure is often more hindrance than help; I still get irked at the casual, and often uncommented upon, use of torture; and I still think that Day Six was hella bad), looking back over my initial review—and the comments that followed—I don't think I explained myself very well. Obviously, some of us are never going to see eye-to-eye, but in trying to give out my reservations on the series, I underplayed the things I honestly enjoy. Like I said, I wasn't assigned this coverage, I asked for it; and there's a reason for that.
For all my problems with the show, structurally and philosophically, I get a kick out of the action, and the heightened character drama; and despite my earlier criticism, there is something to be said for the awesomely absurd plotting the writers make use of to ensure each season lasts the full running time. Since Day One, we've had some terrific villains (even Day Six gave us James Cromwell as Jack Bauer's father), as well as some top-notch supporting players; for all the tedious time wasted on Kim Bauer, 24 gave us the ever-caustic Chloe, who ranks in my mind as one of the best (and most honest) tech-support personnel on TV.
And then there's Jack himself. As part of the promotional material Fox sent us for Day Seven, I got a McFarlane Toys "action figure" of Bauer in his most familiar pose: two-hand gun draw, satchel slung over one shoulder, getting ready to ruin some bad guy's day. Looking at the toy now—it's sitting on top of my cable box—it occurs to me that the main reason I dig 24 is that at heart it's a super-hero show. Sure, it obeys semi-realistic conventions, and Jack has no readily acknowledged powers, but c'mon; he's got a regular outfit (jeans, dark shirt, bullet proof vest), he can do things nobody else can, and in the end, he always wins, even while his personal life turns into utter shit. As played by Keifer Sutherland, Jack is the ultimate proof of the Hitchcock maxim: you love a guy who's good at his job. Only Bauer goes beyond good to be damn near unstoppable—and instead of making the series fall over its own ridiculousness, each new evidence of Jack's constancy makes you root for him all the more.
Still, times are tough, even for super-heroes; the open of Day Seven, after a mid-day kidnapping of a dad-in-glasses, has Jack before a Senate subcommittee prepared to answer questions on his choices during his time with CTU. Jack's forgone a lawyer, and the questioning goes about as you'd expect, with the Senator (Kurtwood Smith!) being all pissy, and Jack defending himself in a speech that sounds suspiciously like something Jack Nicholson might've said in A Few Good Men, minus the yelling. Jack accuses Smith of using the investigation to further his political career, but we aren't given a chance to assess this one way or the other before the committee is interrupted by a pair of FBI agents looking to take Jack into custody. The session adjourns, with Smith announcing Jack will be called back to the stand tomorrow at the same time—and there's a neat moment here when you realize exactly how this season is going to end.
We've already been through the torture discussion, but it's worth noting that for the first time in the course of the show, the writers are directly addressing the concerns Jack's actions have raised. Instead of being a one-off moment to mock an overly-moribund government, the Senate hearing actually looks to be an indicator of a major theme of Day Seven. Multiple times over the course of the premiere, various characters will talk about the things Jack's done, either to condemn him or show their support. 24 has never been particularly self-aware, but these first two hours are surprisingly direct. From what we see, I don't doubt that Jack will be proven right in his decision to torture certain suspects; but the mere fact that it's being addressed at all is fascinating, and bodes well for what's to come.
You know what else bodes well? Tony freakin' Almeida. After apparently dying in Day Five (Peter Weller is such a bastard), he's back, and, by all appearance, he seems to have changed sides. Jack gets pulled into the FBI offices because the dad-in-glasses who got kidnapped in the opening scene is Michael Latham, the man responsible for, apparently, all of the Homeland Security computer infrastructure, and the FBIers, among them cute-as-a-hard-nosed-button Renee Walker (Annie Wersching), think Tony and his team are behind the kidnapping. While Jack does his best to wrap his head around a.) his friend's return from the dead and b.) his not-dead friend turning into a terrorist, we see Almeida and his band of misfit toys beat Latham into building the season's first magical MacGuffin, a device that lets people hack into that afore mentioned infrastructure and do all sorts of nutty things.
A word about the FBI office: cool as CTU was, having the new team of good guys working out of a place with low ceilings, cubicles, and actual carpet, gives the things a different vibe. Combine this with the scenes inside the White House and a situation room that could've stepped out of The West Wing, and you have what amounts to a whole new style for the series, eschewing obviously unreal sets for something a lot less intentionally dramatic. Which makes for a very cool contrast when you throw Jack Bauer into the scene—it's a little like The Searchers, with a man who did his best for his country and his people suddenly finding himself left behind by the society he'd dedicated his life to protecting.
In addition to Agent Walker, we meet a handful of other FBI folks: there's Janis (Janeane Garafalo!), the harried assistant, Sean (Rhys Coiro), the latest in a long line of tact-deficient computer geeks, and head guy Larry Moss (Jeffrey Nordling), who gets what might be the premiere's best line when he pisses Jack off. I expect over the upcoming weeks these guys will be infighting and going behind each other's backs as we've come to expect, but for right now, everyone is pretty calm. Even Larry, with his obvious feelings for Renee, isn't a jerk about it. (It's worth noting that when Renee does go off reservation, to follow a sniper back to base, she does so at Jack's insistence.)
24 would be nothing without its side-running storylines, and so far we've been introduced to two. Of prominent importance are the newly-elected President Allison Talyor (Cherry Jones) struggles to bring America troops into Africa to stop the genocide of General Juma (Tony Todd) and his army. By the end of the two hours, we find out that one of Juma's trusted men—a guy presumed dead after 24: Redemption—is behind Tony's actions, which means we can expect some political shouting matches in the day ahead. And for the pre-requisite "personal" conflict, there's First Man Henry Taylor (Colm Feore) and his frantic quest to discover the real truth behind his son's apparent suicide. Of all the potential plots we've been introduced to, this one has the most potential for pain; but even that potential is pretty slight, given Colm Feore's essentially coolness.
By the end of tonight's two-episode premiere, we've got Jack on the case, and Tony in custody. I'm a little disappointed at how fast Almeida got captured, but the few brief exchanges we get between him and Jack—just the eye contact alone—were freakin' awesome. The danger is still out there, regardless; we've already seen that the MacGuffin can pull a Die Hard 2 on a major airport, and while this first time out, no lives were lost, it's definitely not the sort of device you want falling into the hands of someone with a grudge against the U.S. of A. The question for tomorrow is, how far has Tony sunk? And can a little carefully applied Jack-rage snap him out of his dead-wife blues?
After the disappointing Day Six, and a nearly two year hiatus, 24 Day 7 has a lot to prove, but I'd say things are off to an excellent start. By putting Jack in an unfamiliar environment, the writers have given the entire show a different vibe, one that connects to earlier seasons without being slavishly committed to recreating them; and by addressing the more challenging aspects of Jack's character directly, they've raised the stakes in an unexpected and potentially rewarding way.
—No Chloe yet, but she's been in the promos.
—Man, does anybody do contempt like Carlos Bernard?