Was it really just two years ago that “24” premiered amid concerns that its bleak, shadowy world of terrorist conspiracies would strike too close to home for frayed post-Sept. 11 nerves? Well, viewers have demonstrated their resilience, and the producers have come up with another gripping plot for the third installment. Although not for everyone, “24” remains the equivalent of a great popcorn movie or page-turning book, deftly unfolding in a limited-series format. Given its shaky start ratings-wise, Clay Aiken is a small price to pay for the lift “American Idol” gave this show last season.
More than anything, “24’s” recurring theme has become a rumination on morality — an exploration of the depths to which the ostensible good guys will or must plunge to trump enormous evil.
It’s no wonder, in that context, that the show’s heroes, Counter-Terrorism Unit operative Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) and President David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert), carry scars from past battles — the price paid, in essence, to keep us safe.
Picking up three years after the cliffhanging events of season two, Bauer has suffered a new offscreen ordeal, to go with a murdered wife and being tortured until his heart stopped. Small wonder the guy never cracks a smile.
In custody is a drug dealer with terrorist ties, someone Jack and his new fresh-faced partner (James Badge Dale) spent a year tracking down. “The things you did to get me here, I wouldn’t wish on anyone,” says Salazar (played by Joaquim de Almeida, the reliable heavy from “Clear and Present Danger”). “Let’s face it, you’ll never be the same.”
Still, Jack’s latest waking nightmare is just beginning, as Salazar’s brother is threatening to release a biological attack capable of inflicting massive casualties if he isn’t released.
Palmer, meanwhile, seeking re-election, prepares for a presidential debate while being kept apprised of the newest threat by his ethically challenged brother (DB Woodside).
The biggest bonus of the three-year lapse, however, is that Bauer’s daughter Kim — whose idiotic plotlines last season prompted howlingly funny “Kim is so dumb” threads on the Internet — now actually has a role in the show that makes sense, giving the actress who plays her, Elisha Cuthbert, some reason to be on hand. (As a TiVo owner, I confess to having gotten fed up and pretty much zapped through her entire second-year subplot.)
The first two seasons of “24” each followed a sort-of U-shaped curve qualitatively, beginning at a high level, drifting somewhat aimlessly in the middle and then rallying toward the finish. Intriguing as it is, one suspects the ticking-clock, real-time format would work better on a 13- or 16-hour day, but the vagaries of primetime dictate otherwise.
That said, this remains a razor-sharp drama, fraught with nastiness and peril at every turn, including an encounter with a wounded suspect seemingly plucked out of “Dirty Harry.” If Bauer seldom deviates from brooding intensity, as portrayed by Sutherland he represents the kind of flawed hero who holds our attention, overcoming his adversaries through force of will.
The casting, in fact, is almost uniformly superb, including the latest additions to the rogue’s gallery, however long they survive. It’s worth noting the series is also effortlessly integrated, though the latest plot about Latin drug dealers teeters on the same treacherous terrain that raised hackles with NBC’s “Kingpin.”
There is one pet peeve here — namely, conspicuous product placement on behalf of Ford, whose sponsorship has again allowed the premiere to air commercial-free. Enjoyable as it is to be spared the interruptions, it’s hard not to notice that Ford apparently markets the official SUV of CTU.
Such quibbles notwithstanding, Fox is to be lauded for its stick-to-itiveness with “24,” which barely earned a second season despite its critical accolades. Because the show can’t be easily repeated due to its format, this might be the first modestly rated series that owes some of its viability to DVD sales.
That the program came from a pair of modestly credentialed showrunners, Joel Surnow and Robert Cochran, in the form of a pure pitch also underscores that this was an instance where the development cart properly trailed the horse. And while a midseason surge thanks to “Idol” is perhaps inevitable, the series could get off to a faster-than-usual start with the WB’s “Smallville” vacating its timeslot.
Initially dismissed by some as a questionable gimmick, “24” has become an accomplished exercise in storytelling that takes full advantage of the television form. One can only hope enough of Los Angeles survives its latest plunge into darkness to allow for a fourth very, very bad day.