In the opening moments of tonight's season premiere of “24,” Jack Bauer ( Kiefer Sutherland) is sitting on a couch, playing with his young granddaughter Teri (Claire Geare), trying to access his long-hidden caretaking instincts. Teri is perhaps the only guileless and credulous person left on this show. She's certainly the only one with unassailable motives, which means that she's an obvious foil, a stand-in for the life Jack can never have. As such, she's of little value to this show, which thrives on duplicity and uncertainty and the violation of trust.
At least, that's how it used to work, four or five seasons ago, when it was still shocking that someone might attempt to assassinate the president, or that cliffhangers really did happen every hour, on the hour.
But even more so than the actual security threats posed to this country by enemies, "24" has inured our collective fear reflex: The question isn't if betrayal will be revealed, but how soon. Everyone (save Jack) has a hidden agenda. No one is reliable.
Knowing that from the outset makes for frustrating viewing. Now in its eighth season, "24" has become like the "Scream" movie version of itself, so obviously self-aware about its tropes that it can't even sustain intrigue for a couple of hours. Every time Jack's daughter Kim (Elisha Cuthbert) appears on screen, the instinct is to flinch and tell her, or everyone around her, to run. When various people -- terrorism suspects, world leaders, family members -- are brought back for questioning to the preposterously porous CTU headquarters, impending mayhem is a given.
Even the characters who are just dropping in know the drill. Victor Aruz (Benito Martinez), an informant who triggers the day's events, seeks out Jack, who's attempting to decommission himself, because, "you're the guy who always does the right thing." Decommission that.
From there, things move swiftly, and abruptly, because there's no one to believe in, so rather than waste time establishing compelling, complex characters, it's better if they're little more than light switches with two settings: good and bad. Red herrings in the plot are written so clumsily that it's practically impossible to fall for them; sometimes the narrative is just a stack of them. They're so prevalent that they begin to appear even when they're not actually there.
New blood is what keeps this show in motion, characters with unclear ambitions who can still surprise. The most promising this season is Omar Hassan (Anil Kapoor), president of the Islamic Republic of Kamistan, who is negotiating a peace treaty with U.S. President Allison Taylor (Cherry Jones). He's regal and decent, though that can't last.
Brian Hastings (Mykelti Williamson), tall and slightly hunched, with an earpiece permanently active, is the head of the reconstituted CTU's New York office, in what appears to be a high-tech underground bunker. Though his bent frame keeps him from swaggering, he has a stern bearing dotted with streetwise conversation.
In his charge are an engaged couple, data analyst Dana Walsh (Katee Sackhoff), and field officer Cole Ortiz ( Freddie Prinze Jr.). Ortiz is a gorgeous Borg, action-happy and thought-shy -- each season of "24" generally has one like him, a would-be hero with no off button. Walsh works with -- over, really -- Chloe O'Brian (Mary Lynn Rajskub) who has returned to CTU after her husband lost his job and she was forced to begin working again.
She begins the season in a hole -- working for a new boss, and getting up to speed on new systems. (Even the in-house drone pilot, who steers data-gathering planes over the streets of New York, seems more together.) Chloe is Jack's only real ally, aiding him when he inevitably gets sucked back into the demands of world-rescue.
But over the years, she's become more shrill, in behavior and voice -- more childlike. Season in and season out, she's the only person to successfully thaw his gruff exterior.
Jack's already a caretaker at work -- turns out he doesn't need to play granddaddy after all.
The first two hours of the season air at 8 tonight, the next two at 8 Monday night, before the show settles in for its regular time slot at 9 p.m. Mondays.