February 13, 2009 at 05:00 AM EST

On a sketchy L.A. street, a monstrous fireball has been unleashed inside an apartment complex. Debris is scattered everywhere. FBI agents and paramedics help scorched men out of the building. And there’s our superagent hero Jack Bauer — motto: ”Saving America’s ass since 2001” — barking commands. ”Disregard that order! Perimeter teams, hold your positions! Where’s Agent Walker?” Between takes, a crew member calls for assistance — ”We need thicker blood!” — prompting a makeup woman to gore up the bodies strewn on the street. We’d love to tell you exactly what Jack (Kiefer Sutherland) and Tony (Carlos Bernard) are doing in this late-season-7 scene for Fox’s 24, but then we’d have to torture you — and testify about it later at a Senate subcommittee hearing. (The best we can do is…never trust anyone.) Before the camera rolls, Sutherland shrugs and smiles. ”If you don’t come back with your best season yet,” he says, ”you’re an ass.”

After a poorly received season 6, coupled with a nearly 20-month hiatus (save for November’s TV movie Redemption), the 24 gang had every reason to want to blast out of the gates. And thanks to some savvy readjustments, the series has clearly regained its creative swagger. Now it’s winning back critics with another horrific day of drama, this time set around an African rebel regime that’s wreaking deadly havoc on our soil — with the help of some corrupt government conspirators. Fans are on board too: 24 is averaging 12.3 million viewers, down only 3 percent from its 2007 average. ”Everybody was on the same page that season 7 was kind of a do-or-die year,” says exec producer Howard Gordon. ”We all had the sense that either we were going to make the show fresh again, or we would be dressing a corpse.”

Funny, because they nearly killed themselves getting it to screen. The scribes began toiling on season 7 way back in June 2007, but a series of setbacks dogged the drama. First, the August 2007 start of production was delayed for rewrites. Next, Sutherland was arrested for drunk driving in September 2007. (As part of his guilty plea, the star arranged it so his 48 days of jail time, which began Dec. 5, 2007, would not interfere with production on 24.) Then the writers’ strike nixed plans for a January 2008 return. Finally, production was halted well into filming for additional rewrites. Fortunately, those problems seem to be in the past. We’ve peeked at the next four episodes, and they don’t disappoint. ”From episode 8 to the end,” promises Sutherland, ”it’s like a bullet.” Before the season whizzes by, let’s take a longer look at the five moves that are helping 24 return to form, and preview a little of what’s on the way.

1. Moving the action to D.C.
Over six seasons, Los Angeles endured almost every possible type of terrorist attack, not to mention a few credibility-stretching presidential visits. ”The improbability was starting to show across the line — both for the writers and producers, and for the viewers,” says Gordon. So Team 24 shrewdly decided to shift the action this season to a New Jack City: the home of political intrigue, Washington, D.C. ”It not only gave us a new look, but thematically it was the right place to set the show,” says Gordon. ”All the institutions of power, justice, law and order, and the things worth protecting are there with iconic clarity.” One of those institutions will emerge as a surprise target in episode 11. The show will also delve into the world of private military contractors, and reveal more about the villainous Jonas Hodges (Jon Voight), who was introduced in Redemption. ”He’s unafraid to go toe-to-toe with the government,” says Gordon. ”Clearly he’s got something invested in the coup [led by the African rebels].”

2. Electing a new president
Over the years, 24 has given us two memorable Oval Officers — stately David Palmer and weaselly Charles Logan — but the will of the viewers wasn’t served last season by David’s ineffectual (and at times comatose) brother, Wayne. ”The idea of an evolving president tested at a very early point in his administration was tricky to dramatize,” concedes Gordon. Cherry Jones’ President Allison Taylor, however, has the West Wing back on the right dramatic track. She’s standing by her no-negotiations-with-terrorists policy that has resulted in hundreds of American deaths — possibly including the First Gentleman (Colm Feore). And don’t expect our new prez to cower to Bauer. ”If you believe in the law, Jack’s a very challenging ally,” says Jones about the Taylor-Bauer pairing. ”In a 24-hour period, it goes through every dynamic of a very long marriage.” Hints Sutherland: ”This guy has never come out of one of these days unscathed, and they’ve written President Taylor in a similar vein. Staking out the moral high ground is expensive, and you’re going to pay for it.”

3. Sending CTU underground
When the Counter Terrorism Unit set was dismantled for good after season 6, the producers weren’t planning to relocate its former occupants. Then an image came to mind. ”Han Solo and his motley crew — this ragtag CTU group resurrecting itself to correct a corrupt government — felt like a really great opportunity,” Gordon says. The 24 writers wound up creating something fresh yet familiar by having Jack join forces with off-the-radar operatives Bill (James Morrison, rocking facial scruff and a mock turtleneck), Mary Lynn Rajskub’s Chloe (stay-at-home mom called back to duty!), and Bernard’s Tony Almeida (back from the dead, thanks to, ummm, a hypothermic solution?). Now, not-quite-CTU is working secretly with the president to expose corruption in her administration and to bring down the African terrorist Colonel Dubaku (Hakeem Kae Kazim), second-in-command to General Juma (Tony Todd, who will finally make an appearance in episode 11). ”I was scared s—less,” confesses Sutherland about reviving Almeida. ”You start bringing people back from the dead and you get really nervous. But it wasn’t until Carlos, James, and I played it out in a couple scenes that I was like, ‘Okay! This is going to work.”’ And the CTU-ers are not done working outside the system. After a game-changing development in episode 10, Jack and Chloe will be forced once again to take national security matters into their own hands. Just the way they — and we — like it.

4. Giving Chloe a fun new foil
Although 24 tends to play it extremely straight, the occasional quirky character can liven things up. ”What was missing from season 6 were fresh characters who were just plain fun,” admits Gordon. Meet Janeane Garofalo’s FBI analyst Janis, who ranges from daunted to deadpan. (Sample retort: ”Ma’am, as I just stated, I’m with the FBI. Does that sound vaguely important to you?”) While Janis needles slick co-worker Sean (Rhys Coiro), a rivalry is also developing with tech savant Chloe. Geek sparks will start flying between the two in episode 11. ”It’s a battle of the wits,” sums up Rajskub. ”We’re pulling the rug out from one another while working on the same thing.” Teases Garofalo: ”She thinks she’s better than me. I respect her talents, but they make me angry.”

5. Taking on the torture debate
Season after season, Jack used any means necessary to accomplish his mission. But in a post-Abu Ghraib world, ”suddenly Jack’s conduct took on a darker complexion,” says Gordon. ”It would’ve been foolish to ignore it, and at the same time we couldn’t very well renounce Jack’s [past] behavior. We chose to deal with it directly, calling Jack to task on his own life.” Opening the season with the Senate grilling Jack about his hands-on tactics suffused 24 with new context and relevance. The debate will continue to play out through characters like anti-torture crusader Senator Mayer (Kurtwood Smith), who faces off again with Jack in another setting and ”under very different circumstances,” says Gordon — circumstances that will ultimately force the president to pick a side on the provocative issue. And then there’s Annie Wersching’s FBI agent Renee Walker, who has already compromised her beliefs — and protocol — to get answers. ”Renee’s put in a situation between the rule of law and whatever it takes,” says Gordon. ”By stepping into that dark side, Renee is going to experience consequences.” Meanwhile, Jack’s journey leads to a difficult self-evaluation. ”He’s done some really hard things, like killing his own boss,” says Sutherland. ”And he’s never forgiven himself for that.” Don’t worry, Jack. As long as the action stays strong, we’ll forgive you for everything — including season 6.

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