When the president of the United States says, ''I've thought a lot about you this past year.... I've felt a connection between the two of us,'' and he's not talking to his wife or one of his children or a particularly efficient intern, you know you must be in the TV world of 24, where the adored one being addressed is Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland), the government agent who saved this Important Person's hide in last year's debut run. In the season premiere, candidate-now-President David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert, who's added just the right touch of serene self-importance to his portrayal of a savvy politician) gives Bauer a jingle just as soon as his advisers tell him that a terrorist's nuclear bomb is going to explode somewhere in Los Angeles within the next -- you've got it -- 24 hours.
What Palmer can't see over the phone is that Bauer has grown an unkempt beard, is wearing an untucked, unattractive flannel shirt, and looks about as happy as a ''Survivor'' contestant who's just been handed monkey dung as a food reward. More than a year has passed since we last saw him, but the guy's been ''inactive'' -- on leave, still mourning the murder of his wife. (All due respect for dead characters, but, hey, Jacko -- it's been a year, and don't you remember what a harridan that brittle, tense Teri could be?) And yes, Jack's perpetually morose daughter, Kim (Elisha Cuthbert), has gainful employment as a nanny to a ritzy L.A. family, but, being the crack intelligence agent he still is, Jack probably senses that she's bound to get into trouble: His cell phone will vibrate any moment now.
Sure enough, no sooner does President Palmer demand Bauer's return to the Counter Terrorist Unit pronto (it's that trust, that ''connection'' thing) than the guy Kim is working for (Billy Burke) starts beating on his wife and child (Tracy Middendorf and Skye McCole-Bartusiak), prompting Kim to grab the kid and go on the lam. Now Jack's in the same position he was about this time last season -- he's coping with a government crisis while relying on CTU colleagues such as Tony Almeida (Carlos Bernard) to find Kim and bring her to safety. Like that's gonna happen in less than, oh, about 23 hours, right?
But I kid ''24''; for its calibrated thrill-ride tensions, I will buy into its plot contrivances -- even a subplot in the premiere so unrelated to Bauer, it looks like it was spliced into the tape from an old episode of ''Melrose Place.'' A woman (Sarah Wynter) is concerned that her sister (Laura Harris) is marrying a foreign fellow (Phillip Rhys) whom she fears may have terrorist connections. You can assume that Wynter's prominent billing in the opening credits suggests more screen time -- and interaction with Sutherland -- than she receives in the first two episodes.
Among the other new characters this season, presidential aide Eric Rayburn (Timothy Carhart) is a snippy, pushy sort whom the President has already had to reprimand; Rayburn is clearly either Very Bad News or a Big Red Herring. Even more suspicion-arousing is ''Roseanne'''s Sara Gilbert, popping up as an earnest CTU computer drone; earnestness is a new mode for the usually hangdog Gilbert, and so, of course, I question the motives of her character. That said, what's best about this series is questioning motives -- not merely of the characters, but also of the producers and their take on terrorism. The group behind the L.A. bomb calls itself ''Second Wave,'' and emanates from an unnamed country with a ''prime minister'' who talks in an unplaceable accent. In these breaking-news times, ''24'' risks accusations of exploitation, but I think it handles geopolitical upheaval at least as well as your average nightly-news broadcast.
I should also note that Jack commits a truly shocking, violent act in the first hour, one that effectively suggests just how ruthless and cynical last season's morass of betrayal and death has left him. And speaking of ruthless and cynical, I'm impatiently waiting for the return of Palmer's now ex-wife, Sherry (Penny Johnson Jerald) -- you remember, the loyal-on-the-outside, rotten-on-the-inside campaign spouse. Somehow, I think she's going to make an entrance equal to Joan Collins in her Alexis Carrington prime on ''Dynasty.'' Really, my only significant complaint about the new ''24'' is an excessive use of its visual trademark: split-screen images. These are fine when they're used to let you know where major characters are in different subplots simultaneously, but in next week's episode, there's a split-screen shot that separates two characters talking in the same room together! It's the kind of silliness that makes you hope ''Second Wave'' won't just prove to be an angry Beach Boys cover band.