Undergoing a ground-up renovation nearly equal to the overhaul that transformed “The Practice” into “Boston Legal,” the fourth day in the life of “24” begins slowly but gathers momentum through the second and third hours, promising another satisfying thrill ride for those willing to get on board. Although unlikely to thrive ratings-wise deprived of an “American Idol” lead-in in its regular new Monday slot, the series has the advantage of being one of Fox’s lesser scheduling problems.
Another 18 months have passed since Jack Bauer’s last mission, and the producers have seized on that opportunity not only to find him a new job but also jettison most of the cast, for both good (his annoying daughter) and ill (there’s a new president in town).
Jack (Kiefer Sutherland) is now working for the secretary of defense (flinty William Devane, determined to make Donald Rumsfeld seem like a wimp) while carrying on a secret affair with the boss’s aide/daughter Audrey (Kim Raver).
Soon enough, a terrorist attack brings Bauer back to the Counter Terrorism Unit, and the new chief (the unconvincing Alberta Watson) who booted him. Per usual, all Jack has to do is halt a larger, unspecified assault that’s hours away.
At its best, “24” remains brainy and brawny, focusing on just how bad the ostensible good guys need to become to thwart incomprehensible evil. As if to make clear the show’s shoot first, sort-out-the-damage-later mentality, Devane’s character at one point chides his peacenik son to “spare me your sixth grade, Michael Moore logic.”
What’s lost in the wholesale cast shift, initially, is any drama related to internal CTU politics, other than the fact that the bosses are invariably short-sighted bureaucrats (someone on the show must have worked at a major newspaper) and that career-climbing can muck up even the best-intentioned operations.
Among the few holdovers is the welcome presence of Mary Lynn Rajskub as the prickly Chloe, who respects Jack enough to help him even if it means undermining her superiors.
A parallel plot, unlikely to win many friends among Arab anti-defamation groups, focuses on a sleeper family involved in the still-vague threat. That trio includes Shohreh Aghdashloo (“The House of Sand and Fog”) as a mother who might well be the show’s next Lady Macbeth.
One can easily quibble with some of the changes, as well as the ups and downs of the series, which almost inevitably hits a creative rough patch somewhere in the middle before rallying toward the finish. In this kind of high-wire act, it’s difficult not to stumble here and there.
Still, “24” remains a distinctive premise, uncomfortably poaching from the day’s headlines to stoke paranoia and simultaneously prove cathartic in a post-Sept. 11 world.
Nominated for Emmys but mostly overlooked in the final balloting, “24” is much like “The X-Files,” which gained similar recognition without getting over the hump. Nevertheless, it certainly belongs in any discussion of network TV’s most compelling hours — a status it has earned, one hairpin turn at a time.