What happens in the first 15 minutes of 24‘s fifth season is both anger-inducing and admirable, and the surprise won’t be ruined here. It’s a shocker, and could easily be dismissed as a stunt if it weren’t handled so deftly. As it is, this incident launches four of 24‘s best hours to date.
Last seen, CTU agent Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) was wandering into the sunrise, having faked his death to avoid a prison sentence in China. After 18 months of day labor under an assumed identity, he’s pulled back into action when he’s framed for…doing something really, really bad. (Enjoy that little morsel of spoiler-free vagueness.) As he tries to solve the crime, myriad other games are in play. President Charles Logan (Gregory Itzin), that wishy-washy placeholder of a chief executive, is readying to sign an arms treaty with the Russians just as a separatist terrorist group takes hostages at a Los Angeles airport, demanding the treaty be voided. Thus, 24 returns to the insular politics of the White House — but this president and his crew are quite different from former Commander-in-Chief David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert). The writers have savvily boosted the drama by placing a limp, uninspiring figure at the center of its crisis du season. Logan, introduced last year as an unnerved VP unprepared to inherit the presidency, has morphed into something much creepier: He’s become a petulant, legacy-obsessed Leader of the Free World, a guy who pouts that the hostage situation will ruin his big day. (Logan also lands the best line of the premiere: ”We just need to get through today,” he murmurs, clearly not having logged enough time in 24-land.)
Inside the castle walls lurks an even loopier character: Logan’s mentally unstable wife, Martha (Jean Smart), who holds a key to the conspiracy…if she could just get someone to believe her. Smart, who’s been doing clever, solid work since her Designing Women days, expertly injects Martha with enough irrational bitchiness — bitter outbursts, wild tears — to seriously undermine her. Yet just when the audience is ready for Martha to be packed off, she goes lucid, turning her manipulations into wily, surprising street smarts: This is a written-off woman in a male-dominated White House who’s willing to rip her garments and threaten an agent with an assault charge if he won’t give her the access card she needs.
Smart isn’t the only newcomer creating a stir. Sean Astin arrives as a brisk White House liaison sent to oversee CTU during the crisis — a situation smacking of future trouble. But the best characters remain the old ones: huffy computer analyst Chloe (Mary Lynn Rajskub), who snaps off ironic worker-bee lines like ”I’m really trying to help keep this revised assault on schedule!” And, of course, Jack, who’s as boundary-breaking as ever: ”The only reason you’re still conscious is because I don’t want to carry you,” he tells a 15-year-old boy, in full Dirty Harry squint-whisper. Zipping down L.A. streets, ignoring pleas for moderation, Jack is the millennial Everyman, a quick-fused dude who cuts through the crap of everyday life: smart-aleck teens, traffic jams, office bureaucracy, and various crazed terrorists who just may want to kill us.