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'24' is the most suspense we've had in hours

October 28, 2002|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Don't despair.

With the globe in such turmoil, escapism through entertainment is just the ticket to lift spirits and soften worry lines. Who needs nerve-jangling reality when it's possible to unwind tranquilly with television and float off into dreamy fantasy the likes of this?

Terrorists are about to explode a nuclear device in Los Angeles!

Yes ... Jack's back.

Have I already determined who are the new moles inside L.A.'s branch of the federal Counter Terrorist Unit (CTU)? Of course. Am I not your perceptive devoted servant, again guiding you through the inky labyrinth of serpentine "24," as twisty and spellbinding as ever when it resumes Tuesday night on Fox?

As in its premiere season, it's again a serial whose 24 episodes add up to 24 hours in the lives of its characters, most notably Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland), who gets the call from President David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert) to save L.A.

When we checked in on these kids during last season's finale, then-Sen. Palmer was en route to becoming the nation's first African American president and Jack's wife, Teri (Leslie Hope) -- capping one of the worst days of anyone in humankind -- was history after taking a bullet from CTU turncoat Nina Myers (Sarah Clarke). Coming off an eventful 24 hours herself, their teenage daughter, Kim (Elisha Cuthbert), had escaped terrorist Victor Drazen (Dennis Hopper). It was Drazen's plan to assassinate Palmer that was foiled by Jack.

Back from last season are Palmer (who operates a pared-down, humorless White House compared with "The West Wing's" boisterous crowd on NBC), earnest CTU operative Tony Almeida (Carlos Bernard), unsavory district director George Mason (Xander Berkeley) and Palmer's ruthless wife, Sherry (Penny Johnson Jerald).

Here, too, of course, are Jack and Kim, still distraught about Teri a year after her death.

Kim wants no part of her father (telling him, "Every time I see you I think of Mom") while working as a nanny in a swanky contemporary home whose undertones foreshadow something ominous.

Now a CTU dropout, Jack is a bearded, bitter recluse, in no mood to return when urged and cajoled to re-up for the sake of his country. Does he? Are there 24 hours in a day?

In the first of two episodes provided by Fox, Jack is swiftly back in control and again resourceful, once he returns as a personal favor to Palmer.

But his personality's dusky side -- which surfaced with clarity last season -- darkens to black as he deploys menace and brutality to root out those preparing to set off a rogue nuclear weapon that very day (in the show's parlance, a 24-episode window).

Because of its content, "24" is a series that inevitably rubs shoulders with the real world. Trimmed from last season's original pilot was a two-second shot of a jet exploding in the air because it was seen as coming too close to the flaming Twin Towers realism of 9/11. And Tuesday's hour introducing a nuclear threat airs after last week's prediction by a task force of former top government officials, academics and business leaders that the next terrorist attack against the U.S. will be even more cataclysmic than last year's.

Related to that, here's a major criticism:

Drazen was a Serb. How facile, though, for the second-season "24" to immediately throw around Middle Eastern names and identify Arabs -- still among the entertainment industry's favorite boogeymen -- as pivotal in the plot to obliterate L.A. It's a low road for the show to take, not because Arab terrorists aren't a frightening threat, but because TV and movies have long depicted those of Middle Eastern origin as a shifty-eyed, violent monolith. That stereotype still taints Arab Americans today.

On a lighter note, expecting story consistency and flawless reasoning from "24" is a mistake. You'll need no Geiger counter to detect veins of illogical behavior here, nor a reliance on past story devices.

Almost immediately, for example, someone is on the run and goes missing, promising another of those parallel searches that challenged our hero last season. "Where is she?" Jack demands in a coming episode.

And what about the show's surfeit of young blonds? There are so many here -- none of them having fun -- that it's hard separating one from the other.

Yet echoing last season, there's nothing on the air more entertaining than "24," whose unpredictable hairpin curves and misdirection still have you nervously groping for a seat belt.

Think of it as a highly watchable triumph of form, style and suspenseful directing, with a big assist from Sutherland. A season of Jack now under his belt, he wears this role like his own skin. Ratcheting up last season's intensity, he appears almost crazed at times, as if his interior smoke alarms were squealing and he were the nuclear device about to be triggered.

Serialized stories can be problematic; witness those relatively soft ratings that dogged the original "24."

If this season's first two episodes are an indication, though, watch every hour and you'll be rewarded.




Where: Fox

When: Tuesdays, 9 p.m.

Rating: The network has rated it TV-14V (may be unsuitable for children under 14, with an advisory for violence).

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