The Locale Has Changed, but the Thrill of '24' Hasn't

While "24" shifts coasts in new season, thrills and suspense still remain.

Jan. 11, 2009 — -- Same old Bauer.

For a TV season urgently in need of a kick in the pants, that's great news. "24's" spy-for-a-day Jack is back, a bit wary but not weary — and still more than ready to save the world (and his network) from any and every threat.

Yet that "same" does carry a caveat. "24" is a thriller, elongated and switchbacked to fill 24 episodes, some more successfully than others, and it walks a silk-thread tightrope of plausibility. The series gets off to a terrific start in its first two two-hour episodes, but it started well last season, too, before plunging into a miasma of family soap and stupidity. Don't let your hopes get ahead of you.

Some things have, of course, changed. There's a new threat, built around one of those James Bond-type devices that can break into any super-secret computer. And there's a new president, so capably played by Broadway icon Cherry Jones that she may garner credit when a woman actually occupies the office.

With a new administration in place, Jack has adopted a more-in-tune-with-the-times attitude toward his work. He still believes the ends justify the means, but now he thinks we have a right to know about the means.

CTU having misbehaved itself out of existence, the computer threat is being handled by an FBI team led by Larry Moss (Jeffrey Nordling) and Renee Walker (Annie Wersching), who could turn out to be an excellent by-the-books counter to Jack's mad dashes. The FBI even has its own Chloe in Janis Gold (Janeane Garofalo), who promises to be every bit as abrasively amusing.

Switching agencies gets us out of Los Angeles and into Washington, which is a nice change of visual pace. A few old friends, however, have made the trip, including Chloe (the invaluable Mary Lynn Rajskub) and Bill (James Morrison, looking grizzled and great). And as you've probably already heard, Carlos Bernard's formerly dead Tony is back, as well — though not, at least, as a Grey's ghost.

His revival makes no sense, but it's the type of fast-moving logical leap the show can survive, something you can accept and then move on. The ones that give "24" problems, and that it desperately needs to avoid this year, are those that compound as they go along — like, say, setting off a nuclear bomb in L.A. and then having no one much notice.

Even in these better episodes, typical problems remain. The show has grown too reliant on moles and overly complicated government insider conspiracies. (The writers might want to study the current Illinois scandal, which is a far more common model of pristine simplicity.) And it would be nice if Jack were wrong now and then and, even more, if someone else were allowed to be right.

Still, if we accept Jack being right — and we do — the credit goes to Kiefer Sutherland, whose commitment to the role and the show seems undiminished. Even when "24" went off the rails, Sutherland somehow kept Jack in balance. And now that his show seems back on track, he's rolling at top form.

A grateful TV nation thanks you.