Six seasons into 24, we expect unwinnable scenarios for our superagent Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) to surmount. Sure enough, within the first five minutes, San Antonio, Atlanta, and Los Angeles are burning — small, lethal terrorist attacks are blossoming all over the United States. But the real shock here isn’t fire blasts or bus bombings. It’s our first look at Jack himself: wincing and cowed. Bauer has been returned to the United States after 20 brutal months in that Chinese prison he was packed off to last season. Our torture-the-guy-and-ask-questions-later agent has suffered some ugly karma. There’s a tiny, flawless moment when Bauer gets unhandcuffed on a U.S. airfield and is told he’s being released. He glances at the Chinese diplomat who held him prisoner. Fury mingled with something else: a knee-jerk subservience. Interesting.
The vulnerable hero is a venerable tradition. Indiana Jones muttering spellbound words in Temple of Doom; Rocky streaming chunks of face ham in pretty much any Rocky movie. 24 should trust our ability to fully embrace a fragile Jack. This season’s first four episodes — airing in two-hour blocks on Jan. 14 and 15 (at 8 p.m.) — only flirt with that idea. Otherwise, Bauer pursues the terrorists with close-to-par doggedness. (This time they’re extremists with suitcase nukes and bad dialogue, like ”Once again the streets are flowing with blood!” And a mwhahahaha right back at you, sir.) Jack repeatedly professes his desire to quit the game, but these moments of doubt are just pit stops in 24‘s usual pattern of panic, explosions, technowizardry, and tantrums à la Chloe (Mary Lynn Rajskub).
24‘s best seasons have always hinged on a central, tantalizing character: Shohreh Aghdashloo’s killer mother in season 4; Gregory Itzin’s pouty, vicious president of last season. This year could finally be Jack’s turn to fascinate — the surefire man, unsure. Otherwise, this round of mayhem has little to differentiate itself, aside from a bunch of new (mostly uncompelling) staffers. At CTU, Six Feet Under‘s Eric Balfour returns as a computer analyst and does his usual oily-charm thing (this raises the count to about 42 shows Balfour has strutted through since…breakfast). Meanwhile, the White House, usually such a feverish 24 locale, suddenly feels as hokey as a Saturday Night Live sketch. New president Wayne Palmer (DB Woodside) — David Palmer’s kid brother — has all the gravitas of an underwear model. This could turn out to be a good thing. A callow Commander-in-Chief desperately calling upon his best agent…who’s no longer much of an agent at all. That’s the stuff of Greek tragedy. With car chases. To reach drama that layered, 24 just needs to let its strongest character get weaker.