KIEFER SUTHERLAND PHOTOGRAPH BY ANTHONY MANDLER
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January 06, 2006 at 05:00 AM EST

SPOILER ALERT! THIS STORY CONTAINS PLOT INFORMATION ABOUT 24‘S UPCOMING SEASON.

More chilling than a gun to the face, more terrifying than a holiday-season visit to the mall, is the challenge looming over Fox’s 24: beat the score it set last season. (The nuclear reactor adventures of Kiefer Sutherland’s Jack Bauer averaged 11.9 million viewers — the show’s highest numbers yet.) When the beloved terrorism thriller returns Jan. 15 for its fifth season, legions of diehards will have been waiting a long while (approximately 237 days, but who’s counting?) to see how the series can possibly pull off yet another round of sinister moles, satellite tracking devices, flagrant protocol violations, and mortally wounded thugs who whisper cryptic information before losing consciousness.

The producers are all too familiar with that What next? question. ”It’s not ‘How many times can Jack save the world?”’ says 24 co-creator Joel Surnow. ”It’s ‘How many times can you change the method of how he saves the world?”’ Jack’s dead-man walk into the sunrise in May’s finale was a provocative twist, yet it only complicated the annual arduous brainstorm for the next season’s premise. ”It was impossible,” says exec producer Howard Gordon. ”We’ve covered so much ground that we have to work twice as hard for half as much. A lot of the characters had no place to go. We’d put Jack in this position of being dead but alive, which is conceptually interesting, but what does that mean in real time?… One thing we realized is, We can’t get bigger than a nuclear bomb. Instead of bigger, we had to get smaller. Topping ourselves in terms of a general threat wasn’t necessarily where the drama of 24 rested.”

Not that there’ll be much rest this season. In fact, the opening minutes of the first episode are so shocking…well, we’ll leave the hyperbole to the 24 folks. ”[Fans] are going to be really stressed out — even more so than before,” says Mary Lynn Rajskub, who plays cranky systems analyst Chloe. ”Like, people should take a Valium or something.” Teases Gordon: ”It’ll scramble everyone’s eggs. Whereas in the past we’ve had this slow-mounting tension, this year starts out with a bang and doesn’t let up. Just when Jack thought he’d lost everything, he finds out there’s something more to lose.”

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Joel Surnow,
Robert Cochran
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