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''24'': Confronting the unthinkable

On ”24,” the terrorists detonate a nuke in Los Angeles just minutes after Jack is forced to kill his friend and colleague Curtis

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”24”: Confronting the unthinkable

With a mushroom cloud as its final image rather than the split-screen subplot-summarizer shot that usually ends a 24 chapter, the show took yet another leap into the TV unknown. Has any regular series ever shown villains threatening to detonate a nuclear device and then just going ahead and doing it? (And don’t say Jericho — its nuke was detonated from afar, as the series started.) My reaction was similar to Karen Hayes’ — ”Oh, my God” — but also: Oh, man, I hope the obligation to show us the horrific aftermath of this doesn’t slow down the momentum of the series.

But whatever your reaction, the two-night, four-hour season premiere of 24 went out with a big bang — a double bang, in fact. Just a few minutes before, Jack had been forced to kill Curtis Manning, who was about to murder Assad for heinous crimes the barely former terrorist had committed against Curtis’ fellow soldiers during a Desert Storm operation. ”I can’t let this animal live,” said Curtis. That was gut-strong stuff; you really understood what had made Curtis so uncharacteristically angry. On one level, to be cold-blooded about it, this was an easy death to pull on us as an early-season surprise and for the show to absorb; certainly Roger Cross’ Curtis was always a sturdy performer in the show, but the character was never allowed to tug at our hearts the way Edgar did last season. And there had been clues: Cross wasn’t shown in the promotional cast shots Fox had released, and over these two nights he was unusually assertive, disagreeing angrily with Jack about permitting Assad to help CTU find the ”real” terrorist, Fayed.

On another level, however, losing Curtis removes yet another source of strength for Jack. As I said yesterday, the season’s first, most prominent theme is Jack stripped of strength and will. This notion came up repeatedly last night. Jack telling Curtis as they rode in a car, ”I don’t know what means anything anymore”; Jack telling Bill, after he’d killed Curtis, ”I can’t do this anymore….I’m done.”

Of course, seconds later, Jack saw the exploding mushroom cloud everyone else did, and we know he’ll muster fresh resolve to prevent the other four ”visitors” — terrorist code for such weapons — from being used.

Okay, let’s back up and do some 24 housekeeping, addressing some subplots, characters, and key lines.

· I never really got invested in the suburban family threatened by the Harold and Kumar guy, did you? I felt they were being used the way Connie Britton and her character’s son were used at the start of last season’s 24: As ordinary folks caught up in the show’s new danger, to be put in peril and then discarded, never to be seen again. And, sorry, I still can’t watch Megan Gallagher in anything and not think of her as Gary Shandling’s ex-wife on The Larry Sanders Show.

· I like the idea that Fayed can blackmail the president into getting 110 orange-jumpsuited ”enemy combatants”/”freedom fighters” out of a detention center and into an airplane — it seemed like the sort of thing a hardhead like Fayed would demand. But having an American-looking guard corrupted enough to help in this scheme? Stretched my credulity. How about yours?

· What’s up with Eric Balfour’s return as Milo, and in a position of authority? I side with Morris, the wonderfully intentionally obnoxious ex-hubby of Chloe, on this one: Milo strikes me as a guy who’s been promoted beyond his managerial abilities. So far, the best thing he’s done is be the butt of a classic Chloe line explaining her brief dating of Milo: ”We saw a couple of good movies, but we both agreed it wasn’t happening.” But I guess that’s how the devilish writers want us to think of him….

· What’s up with President Wayne Palmer’s lack of good instincts? Keeping fidgety-weasel Tom Lennox (Peter MacNicol) at his side, listening to him whine, ”I still don’t like this” about the prez’s policy decisions, and then telling Lennox, ”It makes me appreciate your loyalty all the more, Tom.” There’s an uh-oh moment if there ever was one, don’t you think? Or are we being toyed with by those devilish writers, and will Tom prove to be the best dang conservative this government’s had? (Please note I am not going to use the tag I’ve already seen other writers use for Tom Lennox: neocon. There’s nothing ”neo” about this guy — he’s a red-blooded conservative conservative.)

· How great was it, in hour 4, when Bill Buchanan took to the floor of CTU and shouted, ”We have to do better than we’re doing, and we have to do it faster!” Words to live by….

· How ”Chloe” was it when she was given an order by Nadia and our gal snapped, ”You mean like I’m doing already?”

Somehow I’ve managed to end this most serious of 24 episodes on a light note, so I’ll bring it back full circle. How do you think the show is going to handle the literal fallout of such a catastrophe?