Jonathan Demme

"24" is back pounding away at the ever-timely themes of balancing freedom against security -- specifically, sacrificing the former to heighten our sense of the latter. Carrying the weight of those decisions is Kiefer Sutherland's grim Jack Bauer, returned from a Chinese prison to suffer further -- and inflict more pain -- on behalf of the not-always-appreciative ol' red, white and blue.

After a well-deserved, fifth-year’s-the-charm Emmy as outstanding drama, “24″ is back pounding away at the ever-timely themes of balancing freedom against security — specifically, sacrificing the former to heighten our sense of the latter. Carrying the weight of those decisions, yet again, is Kiefer Sutherland’s grim Jack Bauer, returned from a Chinese prison to suffer further — and inflict more pain — on behalf of the not-always-appreciative red, white and blue. The four episodes previewed are far from flawless, but even with their lapses and excesses, I can hardly wait for the next hour.

Before tackling the show itself (and rest assured, nothing significant will be revealed), it’s worth applauding Fox’s ingenuity in finding a way to nurture a concept whose viability was hardly assured. Leveraging the playoff football audience, kicking off the season with four hours over two nights and then airing the show without interruption through May has been simply inspired, helping overcome the inevitable creative sag that assails the series six or eight episodes into each year (or rather, “day”).

As usual, “24″ opens with feverish gusto, as terrorist bombings have created an atmosphere of fear across the U.S., leading to Bauer’s retrieval from what must have been hell in Chinese custody.

Will the new president heed the cooler heads within his administration or the “lock ‘em up now, ask questions later” counsel of Thomas Lennox (a smarmy Peter MacNicol), the most hawkish member of his staff?

At its core, the show functions beautifully as a white-knuckle ride, with Bauer lurching from one seemingly hopeless situation to the next. Yet within that framework also exists a provocative examination of issues that might have been ripped from the op-ed page — torture under exigent circumstances, the ability to negotiate with terrorists and/or rogue states, civil liberties in a post-Sept. 11 age. To its credit, the series generally avoids facile answers, instead providing a virtual Rorschach test depending on the viewer’s political filter.

The program remains a high-wire act in its serialized structure, and writers Howard Gordon and Manny Coto (on the two-hour premiere) and director Jon Cassar do a laudable job of getting the beast in motion, even if the rigorously ticking clock (20 L.A. freeway miles in 20 minutes? Yeah, right) no longer really applies.

The producers also have repopulated the cast with topnotch performers, including Alexander Siddig, Regina King, Harry Lennix, Marisol Nichols and Kal Penn, though don’t count on everyone to be alive come noon.

It spoils nothing, too, to say the show delivers a couple of visceral jolts on its second night — the kind necessary to maintain a real sense of jeopardy. Through such moments, “24″ provides the best of both worlds — thrilling escapism that invites you to check your brain at the door, and events that can be contemplated, off and on, until the train boards again 167 hours later.

24

Fox; Sun. Jan. 14, 8 p.m.

Production

Filmed in Los Angeles by Real Time Prods. in association with Imagine Television and 20th Century Fox Television. Executive producers, Joel Surnow, Robert Cochran, Howard Gordon, Evan Katz, Jon Cassar, Kiefer Sutherland, Brian Grazer; co-executive producers, David Fury, Manny Coto, Stephen Kronish, Michael Loceff; producer, Michael Klick; director, Cassar; writers, Gordon (part I), Coto (part II).

Crew

Camera, Rodney Charters; production design, Joseph Hodges; editors, David Latham, Scott Powell; music, Sean Callery; casting, Debi Manwiller, Peggy Kennedy. Running time: 120 MIN.

Cast

Jack Bauer - Kiefer Sutherland Chloe O'Brian - Mary Lynn Rajskub Wayne Palmer - D.B. Woodside Bill Buchanan - James Morrison Thomas Lennox - Peter MacNicol Karen Hayes - Jayne Atkinson Morris O'Brian - Carlo Rota Milo Pressman - Eric Balfour Nadia Yassir - Marisol Nichols Sandra Palmer - Regina King
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