After three seasons of world-shaking scenarios presidential assassinations! nuclear bombs! biological warfare! 24 might have out-staked itself. Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland), that hard-of-nose Counter Terrorist Unit agent, has already saved the world. Several times. So for its latest round, the series (which premieres on Jan. 9 at 8 p.m. before moving to its regular time slot) has smartly scaled down. In fact, the freakiest scenes are the ones steeped in the everyday.
Still paced in real time, Bauer's sure-to-be-ragged day begins with a train bombing linked to a Turkish terrorist group. (Spoiler alert: This review covers three episodes, though no major plot points are revealed. You've been warned.) Now assigned to U.S. Secretary of Defense James Heller (William Devane) after being booted from the CTU for his previous heroin addiction (darn undercover work!), Bauer happens to be at the CTU for a briefing for the first time since he left. Suspecting something sinister is in play, he helps capture a terrorist, but before long he's busting into the interrogation room and going all Bauer on the criminal's ass, er, knee. (Those who bet that the real-life Abu Ghraib abuse scandals would lead to a more cautious, civil 24 would be wrong. Bauer is still a man of rights-what-rights? expediency.)
Naturally, Bauer's hunch is correct. The train attack is just the beginning of a larger terrorist strike, which won't shake the world but will certainly stun it. The primary agents are the Araz family, Navi (Nestor Serrano), his wife, Dina (House of Sand and Fog's magnetic Oscar nominee Shohreh Aghdashloo), and their teenage son, Behrooz (Jonathan Ahdout). The Araz family in a plotline sure to sting activists on both sides of post-9/11 immigration issues have pretended to be law-abiding Middle Eastern émigrés for almost five years. Here's where 24 mingles pedestrian moments to disturbing effect: The family eat breakfast as they get ready for their role in a conspiracy; the son, before heading on his mission, bickers with his American girlfriend on the phone. There's one plot twist that involves said girlfriend...let's just say a mother inviting her kid's steady over for a visit has never felt so ominous.
24 has always had a handle on good, old-fashioned suspense. Bombings, car chases, shoot-outs the first three hours of the new season dutifully have them all. But one of the best scream-at-the-TV scenes comes when a computer geek-genius (Lukas Haas), who's stumbled onto a terrorist-cell side plot, simply waits for Bauer at a train station. Yup, these days on 24, even loitering creates tension. Just witness those split screens that open and close each segment, enabling us to peek in on several characters at once. This season, they feel more like peepholes into animal cages the characters are always moving, pacing, plotting, even when no real action is occurring.
With Bauer's audience-alienating daughter, Kim (Elisha Cuthbert), sent packing, the snazzy new cast members should keep the series moving at a nice clip.
Devane, who never really plays anyone but himself on screen, uses his tooth acting for good as defense secretary. Friends' Aisha Tyler stirs up intrigue as an ambitious new CTU member; and Kim Raver provides a doe-with-a-steel-spine vibe as Heller's daughter and Bauer's in-jeopardy lover. We can only hope her day isn't as ill-fated as the 24 hours suffered by Bauer's late wife.
While ordinary family life swirls with danger, the atmosphere inside the CTU for all its extraordinary circumstances can feel strangely like a regular office (or a fake one: Mary Lynn Rajskub's slouchy, monotone Chloe seems like a character from an SNL workplace skit, an off-key note that's oddly endearing). Political alliances are still atwitch, and Bauer's still railing against bureaucracy, as represented by the frosty new CTU head, Erin Driscoll (Alberta Watson). When Chloe warns Bauer that his unorthodox tactics are enraging Driscoll, he barks: "I don't have a choice she's not handling this the right way!" In 24, Bauer becomes the superhero stand-in for all employees who feel they could do better than the boss and work becomes a thing of incredible, bristling urgency.