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THE MONITOR

Right back on the clock

Jack Bauer is free after being jailed and tortured on `24.' There's no time for sympathy.

January 12, 2007|Jon Caramanica | Special to The Times

FROM a cold start, it takes about 75 minutes for Jack Bauer to become Jack Bauer. Fresh off a transport plane from China, where he'd been jailed for almost two years, Jack emerges looking like an early '70s Deadhead. He shuffles his feet, has difficulty looking people in the eye, and we learn that he hasn't uttered a word in two years.

Then that clock starts ticking, and before long, a tight shirt has been found, along with a car and a GPS-equipped cellphone, and rather than get mired in the vat of molasses that is sympathy, "24" gets back to business.

That is, if Jack (Kiefer Sutherland) can figure out how to become the world's first emo mercenary. Suffering two years of torture can leave a mark, even on Jack, who begins to wonder if he's still capable of inserting sharp objects at key pressure points to extract information from the unwilling. "Mr. President, the truth is ... I don't think I'm up to it," he tells newly inaugurated Wayne Palmer (D.B. Woodside), when asked to head up the country's search for a deadly terrorist cell. "What'd the Chinese do to you?" asks a frustrated Curtis Manning (Roger Cross), longtime assault buddy of Jack's, when he decides to team up with one known terrorist to stop another.

As ever, Bauer is one part psychosis, one part propaganda -- a man driven completely by force of will and yet willing to sacrifice himself in the name of the greater good of the nation. If only all patriotism were this easy.

That Jack's letting his engine run a bit before pulling out of the gate is no problem, though, because despite the bus explosion in the first hour's opening minutes -- in front of downtown's Walt Disney Concert Hall -- the first few episodes of this season feel curiously slow-paced. Since he took office three months prior, Palmer (younger brother to David Palmer [Dennis Haysbert], the Bill Clinton of "24") has faced consistent terrorist attacks. By the time the day begins, he and his key advisors -- Chief of Staff Tom Lennox (Peter MacNicol), national security advisor Karen Hayes (Jayne Atkinson) -- feel listless, thin, desiccate. Sure, last season's leader of the free world, President Charles Logan (Gregory Itzin), was spineless, but compellingly so, since he also turned out to be an evil mastermind. By contrast, the younger Palmer is grass in the wind, utterly uncertain. He changes his mind whenever he's told to and looks as if he might collapse under the weight of one more attack. Worse, he's stared down by a black-and-white 8-by-10 of his sainted brother, reminding him of calmer times -- and nerves.

Unlike the older Palmer, little Wayne is under everyone's sway. Terrorists demand he hand over money and bodies, and he shrugs. His chief of staff surreptitiously sets up detention centers, and he barely raises an eyebrow. As Lennox, MacNicol is a grade-A nebbish, which will certainly come into play later in the season. ("He treats the Constitution like a list of suggestions!" one character says.) As for now, he's balanced by Hayes, who smells Lennox's desire to sandpaper away civil liberties and tries to occupy the president's other ear.

This is the ideological debate that has increasingly become the show's core, each season more than the previous one. Is "24" red or blue, right or left? Bauer is a glorious fighter, thoughtful and efficient -- just the kind it's easy to support. So what if he pronounces nuclear as "nucular," much as our real world commander in chief does? The only real loyalties here are to results -- the ends justify the ideologies.

Apart from Hayes, a few characters stand in for the civil liberties side this season. Walid Al-Rezani ("Commander in Chief's" Harry Lennix) is the head of a Muslim advocacy group and dates the president's sister Sandra ("Ray's" Regina King). The Wallace family are innocents who live across the street from a terrorist teen, Ahmed Amar (played awkwardly by Kal Penn), well-meaning liberals who unsuspectingly take him in when amped-up neighbors go on an anti-Muslim crusade.

They are in for rude awakenings. When Al-Rezani is placed in a detention camp, he believes he overhears fellow detainees discussing a terrorist plot, then insists Sandra pass along the information to her brother. Faced with privileging the speech of his fellow detainees or serving the national interest, he opts for the latter, even as Sandra tries to talk him out of it.

In "24," it's only natural that the Wallaces would be punished for their benevolence; it's the liberal conundrum or the conservative I-told-you-so. Taken hostage and forced to comply with Ahmed's demands, they're being punished not only for meddling but also for presuming to be something more than cursorily aware of their surroundings (Ahmed chastises the son, a school friend, for not being able to pronounce his name correctly). Ultimately it's the father, Ray (Raphael Sbarge), who bears witness to the horrible event that concludes the two-night premiere -- railroaded into helping a cause he doesn't believe in, and then standing by, powerless to stop what's coming. It's enough to make you red.

*

`24'

Where: Fox

When: 8 to 10 p.m. Sunday and Monday

Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)

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