After a subpar “day” followed by a strike-fueled hiatus, “24” gets solidly back to basics — if by “basics” that means high-tech terrorist threats, shadowy government conspiracies, steely (and demographically historic) presidents facing terrible moral quandaries, the welcome return of familiar faces, and even rumination on the ethics of torture. Jack Bauer has already suffered aplenty for our sins, but the hero born coincidentally in Sept. 11’s wake will improbably survive the Bush administration — and if this level of quality can persist, perhaps well beyond.
That “if” about sustaining quality is no small disclaimer, of course, given the show’s tendency to start like gangbusters, drift into the spring and rally (or in the case of “Day Six,” not) down the home stretch. Again sandwiched into two nights to tantalize the playoff-football crowd, the first four hours begin with former Counter-Terrorism Unit agent Jack (Kiefer Sutherland) addressing a Senate subcommittee, with CTU disbanded and the new Commander in Chief (Cherry Jones) contemplating military action against a ruthless African dictator.
Soon, however, a terrible threat affecting airline travel arises, drawing Jack back into an operation that appears to involve old pal Tony Almeida (Carlos Bernard), who has made a Lazarus-like recovery. This puts Jack into contact with an FBI agent (credibly played by Annie Wersching) who, despite her commitment to follow the rules, must now deal with the same kind of tough ticking-clock choices Bauer tackled in the past.
As if to acknowledge the show’s status as a political Rorschach test, these episodes reflect ambivalence about the depths to which the government should go in the battle to thwart terrorism, with Jack first offering a full-throated defense of torture and later suggesting the debate over what’s permissible — carried out in secret — should be brought into the light of day.
Politics aside, the series still mostly works as a thriller — impeccably produced by its veteran technical crew. The problem has been maintaining the edge-of-your-seat momentum without drifting into inane flourishes somewhere around hours eight through 15, which remains a legitimate Day Seven concern.
The series also might telegraph some of this year’s twists simply by virtue of its casting, including a few supporting players who are likely more than they appear, based strictly on their talent or, in one case, a history of playing memorable heavies. Even so, there are several kick-ass moments during the first two nights, highlighted by what amounts to a nerd battle of wits that’s almost like two sorcerers locked in combat.
For those still smarting from Day Six’s Shakespearean excesses, “24” seems to be back on track — and, paired with “House,” might even enjoy something that approximates a ratings lead-in when it finally goes up against a “Heroes” franchise whose powers are seriously diminished.
Whatever its flaws, this edition of “24” features smart, crisp and densely woven storytelling whose subplots look to be on a well-orchestrated collision course.
Now let’s just hope they can keep that up.