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Tick Tock Shock
The Breathless Hit Returns For Your Viewing Pleasure. But Can You Stomach It?

By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 13, 2007

Heaven knows, agent Jack Bauer has had some tough days and nights in the five previous seasons of "24," but things promise to get even rougher in Season 6, beginning tomorrow night.

Rough for Jack, sure. But even rougher for viewers.

Fox's gritty hit has always pushed the boundaries of permissible TV mayhem (this is a show, after all, in which the hero hacksawed off a dead guy's head). Fair enough: No one expects a suspense drama about a team of counterterrorism agents to be "Swan Lake." But the new "24" now seems to be closing in on the limits of movie mayhem.

To escape from his captors in the first hour of the new season, a manacled Jack (Kiefer Sutherland, ever intense and husky of voice) kills an adversary by biting him on the neck. And not just any old Dracula, I-vant-to-suck-your-blood kind of bite on the neck. The death-by-molars scene is played in close-up, with gurgling, grunting, ripping and tearing noises filling the soundtrack. It's topped off by Jack spitting out a big ol' piece of his victim.

Ptooey.

That is preceded by one of "24's" more gruesome torture sequences (which make up a voluminous category, admittedly). After pounding Jack nearly comatose, the new season's designated Evil Terrorist Mastermind (Adoni Maropis) gouges Jack's shoulder blade and pours some kind of acid into the oozing wound. Then he jams what appears to be a humongous knitting needle into the base of Jack's spine.

All that happens before 7 a.m., at least in "24" time. Can't a man at least enjoy a cup of coffee before facing his workday?

None of this sort of thing, of course, ever slows Jack. One of "24's" many implausibilities is that Sutherland's character can take any kind of vicious stomping and bounce back within a few minutes. Smashed limbs, gaping arterial wounds, heart-stopping electric shocks? No problem. Jack Bauer is the Wile E. Coyote of counterterrorism agents.

There's more, much more, before it gets even worse by the end of the fourth hour. No spoilers here, but suffice to say, "24" might be the least sentimental series ever on TV. With the exception of Bauer, every recurring character -- from Tony Almeida to Edgar Stiles to Mrs. Jack Bauer -- can become ex-characters on short notice. Which is what happens here. And that's not even the most shocking of the carnage in store.

The new season begins almost two years after Jack was kidnapped by government agents from China and put on a slow boat to a Commie prison. In the meantime, America has become a hellish terrorist landscape -- bus bombings here, train attacks there, bodies stacking up (it's fantasy, yes, but it feels uncomfortably plausible). As aides to the second President Palmer (D.B. Woodside) debate how to deal with the madness, one of the Evil Terrorist Masterminds (Maropis) -- several of them seem to be wintering in Los Angeles -- sends word that he'll tip the feds to the whereabouts of an even bigger ETM if they'll hand Jack over to him.

So Jack's back, deeply traumatized by his prison stay (we have to imagine this part, because not even "24's" production budget allows for location shoots in Beijing or Shanghai). We're on familiar ground here, because Jack has always been haunted by something -- his strained relationship with his daughter, his wife's death, his inexplicable attraction to Audrey Raines last season.

Sutherland has disclosed in interviews that Jack's estranged father (played by James Cromwell) will show up later this season, so there might be more personal anguish and angst ahead for Jack. That is, in addition to the usual life-threatening injuries.

In many respects, the new season is very much like the old ones of the Emmy-winning "24," which averaged nearly 14 million viewers last season. The show's innovative and sturdy structure (each regular episode covers one hour of the same day) remains, as do many of the program's familiar plot devices and set pieces. Let's see: Intra-office backbiting at CTU? Yes. An innocent family caught up in the dastardly plot? Check. "Tac-team" raids? Mysteriously traffic-free L.A. locales? Flawless cellphone connections? Yes and more yes.

The surprise after five full seasons is that "24" can still surprise. Its theme -- that tough times require unpleasant choices -- remains relevant and compelling (although the series does tend to resolve its national security questions in a way that would please Dick Cheney). More important, its multilayered story lines ripple with suspense; its twists still shock and satisfy.

As its fans know, "24" doesn't always stand up to unhurried examination. Many of its feats of physical action and technological wizardry are preposterous, and sometimes even unintentionally hilarious.

Never mind that, though. This season, with an even higher level of nastiness, there are other reasons not to watch too closely.

24 premieres tomorrow night at 8 with a two-hour episode; another two-hour episode will air Monday night at 8.

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