Far from running out of tricks, the fifth season of “24” opens with a bang, incorporating an element of mystery that promises to be more satisfying than the somewhat disappointing fourth day in Jack Bauer’s very busy life. Traditionally, the series starts its year on a high and sags in the middle rounds, but Fox’s clever scheduling ploy of launching the show with four hours over two nights should plant the hook deep based on a preview of those episodes, leading loyalists to hang on for the thrill ride.
Beginning 18 months after Jack faked his death, the series quickly launches into a new threat, with twists that Fox has understandably asked critics not to disclose. As for the plot, it’s enough to say the officious, sniveling bureaucrat who took office last season, President Logan (Gregory Itzin), is still in power, banking on a Russian summit to serve as the apex of his presidency.
In the world of “24,” such events are never without a hitch, but the ever-present theme of terrorism and how bad good guys must become to counter evil gets a bit less of a ham-fisted working over this time around. Then again, perhaps that’s merely in comparison to season four, which featured so many acts of righteous torture it began to seem as if Dick Cheney was among the showrunners.
As always, truly savoring this tightrope act requires some suspension of disbelief, from the synergistic plugs for Fox News (doesn’t anybody watch CNN?) to the ridiculously navigable L.A. traffic, as people zip from place to place in those ubiquitous Fords at a pace that can only leave real-life commuters scoffing.
Still, the show continues to feature a top-notch cast, with Kiefer Sutherland providing the right mix of can-do machismo and world-weariness as the indomitable Jack, who has found a new love interest (Connie Britton) that, based on history, is sure to end badly. Frankly, I’d still like to see Fox roll the dice by bringing the series back without him — letting some new agent suffer Job’s trials to keep us free — but there’s no denying the grit and intensity the actor invests in the role.
Joining the ensemble, meanwhile, is the intriguing Jean Smart as the troubled First Lady and Sean Astin as a new overseer of the Counter-Terrorism Unit.
Back, too, is Mary Lynn Rajskub as Jack’s tech-geek ally Chloe, who at one point assures a third party there’s nothing to worry about as Jack sneaks up behind a heavily armed man.
“Relax,” she says, in a voice that invariably suggests anything but relaxing, “he’s really good at this.”
That he is.