Like Michael Corleone, just when Jack Bauer thinks he's about to get out they pull him back, initiating another series of near-misses, hairpin turns and world-imperiling threats to launch an eighth day of "24" -- a Fox drama every bit as durable as its tortured (and torturing) hero. Introducing a number of new characters, the four opening hours establish another credible backdrop to the show's ticking-clock scenario, which producers have wisely learned to divide into arcs defined by a baton-passing series of villains -- a clever formula, even if "4-5-3-5-3-4" isn't a particularly catchy title.
Given the time-lapse that has become part of the program's trademark, too much information about where the story begins only risks spoiling the fun. The basic template, however, involves peace talks between the U.S. president (the steely Cherry Jones) and a brave Arab leader ("Slumdog Millionaire's" Anil Kapoor), whose willingness to negotiate with the West has placed his life in jeopardy. And what about his country's nuclear ambitions, and how far shadowy forces will go to stop him?
A related series of events draw former CTU agent Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) reluctantly into this maelstrom, working with a new team of operatives who are variously in awe of him (agent Cole Ortiz, played by Freddie Prince Jr.) or hostile toward him, as is pig-headed boss Brian Hastings (Mykelti Williamson, who saunters around scowling with a phone affixed to his ear as part of a Sprint tie-in).
Although he wants to make a break and reconnect with his family, if you think our hero can walk away when the chips are down, as the slogan used to say, you don't know Jack.
As always, there's a mix of side plots, including one involving Cole's co-worker and fiancee Dana ("Battlestar Galactica's" Katee Sackhoff, who cleans up quite nicely) that, after four chapters, appears more of a distraction/time-killer than anything else.
Still, the producers discovered during last year's creatively resurgent season that "24" works best when the show doesn't take itself too seriously -- incorporating just enough sobering geopolitics to establish a credible foundation before indulging in wild flights of counterespionage fancy. Moreover, having one villain drive the plot for a handful of episodes before being supplanted by another has added greater satisfaction and closure to the program's high-wire storytelling, which in past years often sagged dramatically during its middle section.
At some point it would be equally welcome to see Bauer ride into the sunset, allowing another hard-bitten agent to assume the unfortunate mantle of protecting a not-particularly-grateful nation -- and giving real-life politicians a new fictional savior to reference, cynically, in their counterterrorism arguments.
For now, though, "24" impressively soldiers on -- even if its popularity has probably peaked and its hero is understandably pooped. Then again, after eight days like this, even Jack Bauer deserves a rest.