“24” Season Seven
Mondays at 9 p.m.
FOX

4 out of 5 Stars

When a show’s plot becomes contrived and its viewership declines, sometimes all it needs to recover is a year-and-a-half break. At least that’s what worked for “24.” After a noticeable dive in quality during its sixth season, FOX’s “24” began the redemption process in its two-night, four-hour season seven premiere. Each hour was filled with nonstop action and thrilling twists that revived the show’s knack for compelling, multidimensional stories.

Set almost two years after the end of the sixth season, the show first revisits Jack Bauer, still brilliantly portrayed by Kiefer Sutherland (“Phone Booth”), as he is being interrogated at a U.S. Senate hearing. In the hearing, senators question Bauer about the violent interrogation techniques he used while working for the now-dismantled Counter Terrorist Unit. Of course, just a short time into the questioning, a threat to national security erupts and Bauer is thrust back into action and enlisted by the FBI to help follow a lead. As he begins to connect the dots in that way only he can, he uncovers a multi-layered conspiracy to hold hostage the government’s crucial computer system. Through all this commotion he is constantly forced to choose between following procedure or breaking the rules to get results. The addition of the Senate hearing to start the season gives this struggle a stronger sense of significance.

Season seven also introduces an almost entirely new cast whose complexities add fresh suspense and intrigue to the show. New character FBI Agent Renee Walker (Annie Wersching, “General Hospital”) has been hesitant to break with FBI procedure, but the stress of the escalating terrorist plot makes her quickly question her values. The new and optimistic President Allison Taylor (Cherry Jones, “The Village”), who ran on a platform of non-negotiation with terrorists, may also act contrary to her previous notions to protect American lives this season. Refocusing on these multifaceted struggles is sure to help this season propel “24” to its former glory.

The fact that “24” contains so much action while taking place in real time has always been impressive. But the producers did away with the iconic clock in the bottom corner of the screen this season, using a clock only for transitions to-and-from commercial breaks. This season, the show doesn’t cling to the real-time gimmick as fervently as it once did, and that’s a good thing; it cuts the show some much-deserved slack.

Not only is “24” well-developed, its creative team has a high social awareness which transcends that of most other popular programming. More than ever before, this season focuses on the morality of torture as an effective method in obtaining information. Jack’s inner battle over what constitutes right and wrong combined with the drama of the Senate hearing embody this debate. Similarly, the genocide occurring in the fictional African country of Sengala is an echo of similar crises in Sudan, Congo and Rwanda. These themes are debated under the leadership of a new, female President who promised to usher in a new age and bring hope to the American people. Why does that all sound so familiar?

Jack Bauer isn’t the quintessential hero. He often does undeniably terrible things to serve the greater good, but the real world isn’t black and white, and the two sides of Jack make his character believable. Viewers root for President Taylor to establish her position as a world leader because her stance on the civil war in Sengala and overall idealism is something we would like to see in our own executive. Even though “24” avoids mentioning dates, the use of familiar scenarios and current events will help viewers relate to the show.

TV shows with intricate plots and well-developed characters are relatively rare. And even more rare are those that succeed over a long period of time. “24” is unique in its ability to produce both consistently thrilling action and an intriguing story, placing it among the essential TV shows to watch this winter. Yes, Jack Bauer will still be doing what he does best — bringing down terrorists in record time — but “24” is truly new this season, and it’s bound to be more thought-provoking than it has ever been before. As long as the writers have learned not to let the plot get out of control, “24” will finally return to its must-see TV status.

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