Tuned In

24 Gets to Know Jack

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The review disc of the first four episodes of this season’s 24 (debuts Sunday, 8 p.m. E.T.) comes with a message from Fox, in bold and underlined: "Do not divulge to your readers the events of the first 10 minutes in the first hour." Given that 24 is a serial show, that makes it kinda impossible to tell you anything about what happens in the next 10 minutes, or the next, and so on. Of course, 24 viewers are so jealous of its suspense that you probably wouldn’t want me to, anyway. I could tell you, but you’d have to kill me.

So here’s what I can say. When Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) begins the season, he is still playing dead in order to escape international prosecution for the unfortunate etiquette breach of invading a Chinese consulate and getting someone there killed. A crisis arises that  forces him to resurrect himself pretty quickly. The show continues to prove its delightfully homicidal willingness to kill characters. Chloe (Mary Lynn Rajskub) continues to be able to hack into complex computer systems faster than you can withdraw $20 from the ATM. And the CTU continues to have an apparent mole-to-agent ratio of about one to one.

A lot of critics loved the last season, but I thought it went off the rails with a storyline that lurched from one plot of supervillainy to another: nuclear plant meltdowns, a stolen warhead, a-what?-electromagnetic pulse bomb. It became like watching a cranky version of Alias. The problem, I think, was that the show had backed itself into a corner, upping the ante so dramatically in seasons 2 and 3-with nuclear and then a biological mass terror plots-that it had nowhere to go. Short of having someone bust out of the TV and hold you hostage in your living room, there was no way of generating a greater sense of threat.

In the first few episodes of this season, at least, 24 seems to have found a solution. It’s reduced its scale, focusing, as the first season did, on a more intimate, small-scale threat involving Jack. The show signaled that in its last shot of last season, showing newly "dead" Jack stalking off into the sunset in a dramatic, poignant scene: nuclear threats or no, it’s always really been about him. Who knows if it will continue-a scene at the end of the fourth episode, which I can likewise tell you nothing about-suggests that the show could be headed toward another Lex Luthorian threat. At least in the first four hours, which play out in double shots Sunday and Monday night, the show reminds us of the intense thrills it can provide even without threatening to blow up the entire planet.

But you didn’t hear that from me.