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TV Preview: Jack Bauer returns for another day at the office

By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 17, 2010; E01

Jack Bauer's looming irrelevancy in the Obama era was called off a few weeks ago, on Christmas Day, when a novice jihadist set his underwear on fire on a Northwest Airlines flight.

Blindly hoping to leave the '00s behind, we were instead sucked right back into the abstract anxieties of the threat-level orange, Dick Cheney world, with its iffy intelligence and inconveniences to Western lifestyles. After Undiebomber's apprehension, the cry (for blame, for help) went out almost immediately: Who is supposed to connect the dots? Where in the process did they fail to connect the dots? Why can't anyone connect the damn dots?

Well, here's "24" again, with a renewed sense of dot-connecting purpose (fictional, yet symbolic) and a two-night premiere, Sunday and Monday -- a rollicking four-hour chunk in which the series seems on track to rediscover some of its original verve. Eight seasons in, Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) conveniently bears the weight of whatever paranoias, metaphors, comparisons, wonky op-eds and wishful thinking the news cycle may wish to heap upon him.

Which is what he was doing almost a decade ago, too. Recall if you will that our endless journey with Jack's incremental frenzy began just weeks after the events of 9/11, when the Fox network fretted about airing "24," its real-time action-adventure show -- it literally opened with the explosive sabotage of a jetliner.

But "24" benefits from the vibe of the times. It acted, and still acts, as a parallel world in which to work out our collective angst about suspicion, profiling, torture, disaster, evildoers, politics, jihad, the trade imbalance (Russian mobsters, Chinese magnates, Mexican drug cartels), airports, guns and so many bombs -- be they plastique, dirty or nuclear. "24" is about national security and, most of all, national insecurity. More than a reprieve from reality, it can be a distraction from it. As Sunday's reboot makes clear, "24" is as good as it ever was, and as bad as it ever was.

Jack! Wake up!

After a tepid and disjointed previous season set in Washington, "24" moves to New York, where the president of the Islamic nation of Makebelieve-istan, Omar Hassan ("Slumdog Millionaire's" Anil Kapoor), is having a summit at the United Nations with U.S. President Allison Taylor (Cherry Jones, who survived last season).

Makebelieve-istan is ready to call off its nuclear testing program in exchange for new trade agreements. Naturally, a complicated assassination plot is in the works, involving Russian gangsters and Hassan's brother, Farhad. (We know he's bad from his fey hairdo.) In fact, from the very first clink-clink of "24's" clock, the plot unfolds with a reliable precision. A wounded thug with vital information is running for his life through the afternoon rush-hour streets of New York and Jack Bauer is snoozing on a sofa, blocks away.

In a matter of minutes, Jack will be back in the clutches of "24's" cruel writers, but here, for the briefest glimpse, is my favorite part of "24": Jack in oblivious repose. It is a moment to consider a whole other kind of show. What if the people who make "24" (and the executives at Fox who air the show) had the courage to leave it at that, or instead treat us to a sort of meta-"24," much like Andy Warhol's 12-hour film of the Empire State Building, in which nothing happens?

What if we watched Jack nap for an hour or two? What if he woke in the third hour, went to the bathroom, then got online for a while, then fixed something to eat, then returned to the couch and then proceeded to "watch" hourly installments of a show that is rather like "24," and yelled at the screen, outraged by the very preposterousness of the reality being presented to him?

"Jack!" screams a little girl, perched on our beleaguered hero's chest, and he snaps awake.

"Sweetheart, we already talked about this, remember?" Jack says. "You're supposed to call me Grampa."

"You don't look like a Grampa," she says.

"I couldn't agree with you more," he says. (Sutherland is, in fact, 43. Something in his contract must mandate that he keep drinking and smoking himself into an increasing degree of gravelly voiced cragginess.)

"The cartoon you turned on is boring," his granddaughter tells him.

He flips channels to find her something else to watch. He lingers on Fox News, which is all a-dither about the security concerns around the U.N. meeting. There's that "24" sense of doom in Jack's eyes.

"Grampa!" the girl shouts. "This isn't a cartoon!"

Downwardly mobile

Oh, sweetie, but it is a cartoon. We want Jack to be a Road Runner, but to our utter frustration, "24" strings us along by rewarding its many Wile E. Coyotes.

Personally, I always thought "24" worked best as a dark comedy about the despair of the inept American workplace -- sort of like "The Office," only with more loss of limb. It was, and still is, a show about people trying to pass the buck to cover their asses, or take undeserved credit for the work of others, or scheme their way to the top of the Counter Terrorism Unit. The show's history is rife with bad bosses and horrible HR protocols. The harder he works, the worse Jack is treated, and I think this is the best reason to stick with "24." Jack started out at the top and worked his way down, down, downsized -- a non-entity, an ex-employee, a badgeless rogue who is always being thanklessly asked back to work.

"I hate this place," Jack says, as he is dragged back into ad-hoc, quasi-employment at the New York CTU, where the boss (Mykelti Williamson) is quickly shown to be inept and conniving and, most of all, unwilling to listen to Jack's plan. (Because if people listened to Jack and did what he said, "24" could be a show called "7 1/2 .") At this stage in his beaten-down life, Jack wants what all overworked Americans crave: funemployment, early retirement, a workable severance.

Of course he wants out -- who wouldn't? The actors are worse than ever, the plot giving off the smell of aged cheese. Yet Jack must hold it together. The regrettable, callous carnage -- a "24" trademark -- begins almost immediately. A thug plunges down a stairwell, while another gets an ax to the chest; two cops are shot and killed in an alley standoff; an off-duty cop and his wife are shot in their Queens kitchen, point-blank, in their foreheads. Worse still, Freddie Prinze Jr. is running about, channeling that master thespian, Keanu Reeves.

Chloe O'Brian (everyone's favorite Sour Patch Kid, Mary Lynn Rajskub) begs Jack to stay and help her convince these nincompoop colleagues of the terrorist plot so clear to her and Jack and no one else: "You've asked me to do crazy things, and I've always taken your side," Chloe tells Jack. Can't he do the same for her?

"Not this time. Not me," Jack says. "I can't."

He can. He'll have to. It's going to be a long day, but we've had worse, and "24" feels oddly fresh and retro at the same time.

24

returns to Fox on Sunday at 9 p.m. (two hours) and continues Monday at 8 p.m. (two hours).

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