In one of television’s most surprising and memorable scenes of last year, federal agent Jack Bauer cradled his pregnant wife’s lifeless body in his arms, bringing to an end an intensely eventful day of conspiracy, terror and tragedy.

Paul Wong
Courtesy of FOX
Kiefer Sutherland gears up for his second season.

After the artistic and creative success of the first season, it seemed it would be difficult to retain the suspense and originality of the show without retreading some of the same waters. And because the show’s groundbreaking achievement didn’t necessarily translate into commercial success (the series averaged only 8.6 million weekly viewers), the producers of the show had difficulty convincing the network to continue with the real-time concept that made the show innovative in the first place. The concern was that the overarching format (24 hours in one day equals 24 episodes of one season) is too restrictive to potential viewers in that self-contained episodes allow the audience to come and go at their leisure.

This was evident in last year’s complex, season-long plotline, in which Bauer, a government agent of the CIA’s Counter Terrorist Unit, was suddenly assigned the task of stopping an assassination attempt on leading Presidential Candidate Senator David Palmer while simultaneously attempting to find his kidnapped wife and daughter. Bauer ultimately derailed the plot and recovered his family, but not before his wife was murdered by his ex-girlfriend/agency turncoat, Nina.

Following such an intricate and demanding story, FOX’s hesitation was understandable. But somehow, the masterminds behind “24” have managed to come up with an idea that is equally as timely, inventive and exciting as the original.

Tonight’s second season premiere picks up 16 months later. Senator Palmer is now President Palmer (Dennis Haysbert, “Major League”), and Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) is a grieving and depressed mess, inactive from CTU and detached from his daughter, Kim (Elisha Cuthbert). While Bauer continues to mourn the murder of his wife, Kim works as a nanny for a swanky upper-class family, whose paterfamilias turns out to be a little more authoritative than she would like.

Meanwhile, at precisely 8 a.m. the President receives word in the middle of a fishing trip that terrorists have a rogue nuclear bomb somewhere on U.S. soil, and they are planning to detonate it within the next 24 hours. Thus enters the real-time format, and of course, Jack Bauer. Palmer persuades Bauer, who with his craggy beard and flannel shirt looks more like a weathered lumberjack than a government agent, to return to CTU and head-up the anti-terrorist effort.

A handful of vaguely interconnected subplots are also introduced, including a wedding day suspicion coming from a woman (Sarah Wynter) who believes that her sister may be marrying a dangerous man with possible terrorist ties. Assuredly, these will become less vague and more connected over the course of the season, culminating in some form of thrillingly intricate plot revelation.

Other prominent new characters include a wily new Presidential aide (Timothy Carhart) and an overeager computer programmer at CTU (Sarah Gilbert, “Roseanne”), who will be joining such CTU regulars as Tony Almeida (Carlos Bernard) and George Mason (Xander Berkeley), all of whom will undoubtedly become drawn into the political intrigue before long.

Also returning for the second wind, although not in the premiere, will be the President’s scheming and manipulative (now ex-) wife, Sherry (Penny Johnson Gerald), as well as Nina’s betraying CTU mole, played by a passionate Sarah Clarke.

All of the characters are exceptionally crafted and superbly acted, but as there isn’t much room for character development within the given format, it’s Sutherland’s tour-de-force performance as the emotionally battered and conflicted Bauer that buttresses the show’s appeal. Along with his wife, he has lost his limits, and has no problem demonstrating this in truly shocking fashion in the first hour.

The producers don’t shy away from the uncomfortable subject matter and questionable motives, exploring the timely topic of terrorism head-on. Although the ambiguous “Second Wave” terrorist organization has ties to an unnamed country, the proposition of such a dastardly event and its appalling consequences are revealed in a way that horrifically parallels our reality, maybe too much so for some viewers. Nonetheless, the show’s depth and complexity makes it is safe to say that you are not going to find a better program on network television than “24,” and you don’t want to miss a second. Fortunately, FOX’s sister cable network, FX, will be airing episodes after they run on Tuesdays, so there is no excuse not to follow this year.

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