I'm beginning to think Fox's real-time espionage hit 24 is the best head fake in the history of television.
Case in point: the first scene featuring hero ex-Counter Terrorist Unit agent Jack Bauer in the network's two-day, four-hour premiere event kicking off tonight. Bauer is seated before a congressional subcommittee, finally called to account for unlawfully torturing suspects during past emergencies, gravely declining a lawyer and browbeating his inquisitor for questioning his methods.
Are we seeing a newly-repentant 24, chastened by the public debate over real torture and headlines revealing that flesh-and-blood soldiers used DVDs of the show to develop a method for questioning actual, suspected members of al-Qaida?
Not a chance. Because Kiefer Sutherland's Bauer is whisked away from his public flogging in minutes when he is summoned by the FBI to aid in an emergency only he can handle, in the way that only he has the stomach to endure.
While the FBI worries over warrants and due process, Bauer wants to torture a suspect to help locate a surprise nemesis; his former CTU partner Tony Almeida (Carlos Bernard), who seems to be working for terrorists.
The ostensible crisis is Almeida's success in hacking a government firewall protecting air traffic control systems and electric power (if this sounds familiar, it's because Bruce Willis faced something awfully similar in the last Die Hard movie). But the real crisis here is the debate between sticking with due process and doing whatever it takes to handle an emergency — an argument Bauer wins every time.
As Bauer tracks Almeida, President Allison Taylor (Cherry Jones) is juggling the domestic terrorist threat and unrest in Sengala, a fictional African country. Brandishing a hair helmet worthy of Hillary Clinton herself, Taylor is Bauer in a skirt, berating her secretary of state for resisting military action.
Last year in Los Angeles, 24 director and producer Jon Cassar told me the real reason Bauer tortures suspects on the show — it's because in a real-time drama they don't have time to spend long minutes talking out important plot points. So, even though CTU is disbanded and Bauer is facing indictment, in the world of 24 it's everyone else who doesn't get what it takes, echoing the show's constant theme of Bauer as a misunderstood hero.
Which is too bad, because in a world where more questions about real-life torture pile up every day, the action in 24 is starting to feel as dated as a Bush-Cheney campaign sign.
Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland): Redemption revealed that our intrepid Counter Terrorism Unit agent had been wandering the world for years after last season's events in order to dodge a federal subpoena aimed at prosecuting him for torture. As this season begins, he's stuck in front of that congressional committee. Naturally, Jack only returned to save lives, in this case, a bunch of African kids who couldn't enter the U.S. without him, but with CTU disbanded and Jack discredited, a lily-livered FBI may not have what it takes to handle the next threat.
Tony Almeida (Carlos Bernard): The worst-kept spoiler of this season can be revealed: Bauer's buddy and old CTU partner Almeida didn't die when left for dead on a hospital gurney in Season Five. He's back, he's bitter and he's working for terrorists who are trying to electronically seize control of the nation's infrastructure. Guess who gets sprung from a congressional grilling to hunt him down?
Janis Gold (Janeane Garofalo): Everybody's favorite Gen X comic gets serious as an FBI systems analyst who seems an awful lot like a new school version of socially awkward CTU tech genius Chloe O'Brian. Turns out even a slacker hero can get all earnest and intense if the part is big enough.
Allison Taylor (Cherry Jones): Hillary Clinton fans, rejoice — 24 made your dream into TV reality, casting Broadway star Jones as the first female president. However, her hunky son, shown briefly in Redemption, is now dead and the first dude has trouble accepting the official verdict of suicide.
Jonas Hodges (Jon Voight): A slick Washington power broker revealed in Redemption, Voight's Hodges doesn't surface in this week's episodes. But I'm thinking they didn't hire Angelina Jolie's Oscar-winning daddy for three sneering scenes in a two-hour TV movie in November.
Chloe O'Brian and Bill Buchanan (Mary Lynn Rajskub and James Morrison): One is the office mate from hell, the other is a crusty boss with a heart of gold. But with CTU officially outta here, why are they working to track Almeida's terrorist crew?
With nearly two years since we last saw super-agent Jack Bauer take a screwdriver to a terrorist's legs, fans can be forgiven for not remembering exactly who has done what on Fox's real-time espionage drama, 24. (Real fans don't count November's two-hour movie, 24: Redemption, because only Jack got tortured there). Fortunately, we're here to help. As Fox's four-hour premiere unfolds at 8 tonight and Monday on WTVT-Ch. 13, just peruse our handy digest to keep it all straight, and remember — half the fun of 24 is getting a little lost in the impossible subplots and redundant characters.