Four hours, two nights, one-dimensional—the season debut of 24 (Fox, Sunday and Monday at 8 p.m. ET) is a curiously effective system for delivering high suspense and low thrills. The producers of the counterterrorism action hit make a virtue of the show's preposterous narrative, setting up plotlines more byzantine than Rube Goldberg contraptions and then rigging things such that the very contrivance becomes an object of wonder and an essential part of the fun. There's no surface whimsy, of course; any trace of levity would throw light on the show's ludicrousness.
Consider the scene, airing Monday night, in which Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) and an ally tail an Islamic terrorist back to Terrorist Headquarters. They realize that the baddie is driving from the city of Los Angeles out to its suburbs, where the traffic will be thinner and their car more obvious. Bauer decides it will be far less conspicuous to hop out, commandeer a vehicle, take a separate route, smash his ride into the terrorist's as if it were a regular auto accident, and have the ally—in the guise of a witness to the crash who'd just been minding his own business—give the guy a lift, a situation then milked for a good five minutes of tight-focus tension. You have to give 24 points for the flair it brings to its outlandish action, and you can't take away any for its silliness. That would be like pointing out that the bite of a radioactive spider wouldn't really endow a man with special powers.
The end of the fifth season found Bauer abducted by the Chinese government, which was cheesed off that duty obliged him to make a mess of its L.A. consulate. This season begins with Jack's release; 10 minutes in, the haggard hero is trudging off a plane in handcuffs. Looks like the Chinese have been working Jack over pretty hard, foremost by assailing his face with a bad fake beard. "Please convey to your president that Mr. Bauer never broke his silence," a representative of Beijing says with a note of solemn admiration. "He hasn't spoken a word in nearly two years." (You would think that, given the chance to rest his larynx, Bauer might have lost the gravel in his voice, but Sutherland still draws you in with his hushed bark.) "The President has paid a high price for Mr. Bauer's freedom," the Chinese functionary continues, now just sounding like he's got a new crush. "What he wants from him must be very important."
That it is: In short, the United States is on red alert; people are afraid to leave their houses; public buses get violated on a regular schedule, as do the civil rights of Muslims; and Jack must risk sacrificing himself to thwart Armageddon. You don't want me to tell you the exact nature of this risk, and neither does 24's executive producer, Howard Gordon, who sent critics a note asking us to refrain, which strikes me as fair. The letter also refers to Jack as "our Everyman," which is rather bizarre. Everyman isn't the first term most people would reach for to describe an unkillable supercop who often takes his orders straight from the president. If Jack Bauer is an everyman, then so is James Bond. Does Gordon mean to say that Jack is every regular guy's ideal of courage? The empowering fantasy of all-American male rage?
It looks a lot like that whenever Jack interacts with us homely civilians. There's the moment, Sunday night, when Jack, intending to bust up a plot against L.A.'s subway, boards a train without a ticket. Before he can pummel the baddie, he must put the ticket taker in his place. "My name is Jack Bauer," he says in his best bedroom growl. "I'm a federal agent. You have a terrorist on this train with a bomb. I need you to walk away. If he notices anything unusual, he will detonate his bomb. Now move away." And the man moves away, and I start thinking about trying this the next time I'm on New Jersey Transit.
There's depth to 24, but it's all in the violence—the sight of an actual everyman who, unwillingly drawn into the terror plot, beats a man to protect his family; the sound of a terrorist explaining himself to a former friend: "It's not what I want to do, it's what I have to do. I'm a soldier." Other people hold that the show has substance to it just because it makes regular twitches in the direction of the Fourth and Sixth Amendments. The coming season will keep the president's sister, Sandra, busy as the nation's conscience: "I'm not some idealistic flag-burner … but once you start ethnic profiling, it's a slippery slope," and, "I wanna fight this, bring attention to the civil liberties that your administration has allowed to be violated," and "Blah blah blah blah blah." This talk is tedious but essential to the drama's success—not because 24 wants to entertain actual consideration of the issues, but because Jack's got to be fighting for something. The show is so dense with incident and relentless in its momentum that you don't get to see much of the actual America, just its passenger cars and cellular phones. Sandra shoulders the responsibility for hauling out the cardboard signs that evoke its principles. The faux seriousness also provides cover for fans looking to dignify the fact that they get their jollies watching explosions and bloodshed.
Meanwhile, I'm curious: How many other cultures have shows on the order of 24 and Sleeper Cell—programs that convert blasts of terror into pops of corn? Does it happen in places where things blow up with some regularity? Do they unwind with such stuff in Tel Aviv or Thailand? Has Penélope Cruz ever slipped into a cat suit to battle Basque separatists? Or can an everyman like Jack exist only in this decadent superpower?