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In the UK: Mondays, 9pm, Sky One
Sometimes a year off can be a boon. Like a gap year or backpacking round Europe, it can give you new perspectives and distance on things you used to take for granted.
24's been stuck on the TGV of TV for over a year now, its last season cancelled by the writers' strike, with only an anaemic and turgid TV movie to keep us going since then. But as this four-episode, two-night intro to the new season shows, it's come back a whole lot more vigorous than when it left and it's brought a bunch of old friends with it.
Celebrating its 150th episode this season, 24 is one of the most innovative, addictive and acclaimed dramas on television. In its first six seasons, the suspenseful series was nominated for a total of 57 Emmy awards, winning for Outstanding Drama Series (2006) and Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series for star Kiefer Sutherland (2006). Season Six garnered a sixth consecutive Emmy nomination for Sutherland and second consecutive nomination for supporting actor Jean Smart.
"Day 7" of 24 promises to combine the show's unique and trend-setting format with compelling new elements. Each episode again will cover one hour of real time, as viewers follow JACK BAUER (Kiefer Sutherland) through another astonishing day.
Set in Washington, DC, "Day 7" opens four years after Season Six with CTU dismantled and Bauer on trial. Bauer's day takes an unexpected turn when former colleague TONY ALMEIDA (Carlos Bernard) returns. Meanwhile, newly elected President ALLISON TAYLOR (Cherry Jones) leads the country alongside White House Chief of Staff ETHAN KANIN (Bob Gunton) and First Gentleman HENRY TAYLOR (Colm Feore).
A national security crisis prompts an investigation by a team of FBI agents including JANIS GOLD (Janeane Garofalo), RENEE WALKER (Annie Wersching), LARRY MOSS (Jeffrey Nordling) and SEAN HILLINGER (Rhys Coiro). Although CTU is no longer, CHLOE O'BRIAN (Mary Lynn Rajskub) and BILL BUCHANAN (James Morrison) are back for another momentous day of shocking events.
24, created by Joel Surnow and Robert Cochran, is a production of Real Time Productions and Imagine Television in association with 20th Century Fox Television. Howard Gordon, Evan Katz, Jon Cassar, Manny Coto, David Fury, Kiefer Sutherland and Brian Grazer are executive producers.
Is it any good?
Looking back at the last few seasons of 24, it's reasonably clear what the problems were. After season two gave us terrorists with a nuclear bomb, there was very little room for the producers to come up with worse threats each year, without reaching ludicrous heights: a virus that could wipe out mankind; terrorists whocould take over nuclear power stations remotely, hijack stealth fighters, shoot down Air Force One and unbelievably, do even more to top that; a plot by the President himself that nearly sets off World War Three; and so on.
Then there were the constant attempts to shock us by killing off old favourites, the constant traitor in the midst, the tiresome dweeb bickering at CTU: even the producers got tired of it all and quit their plot halfway through season six to have a go with another one.
It seems they've gone back to basics, right down to the "All events depicted occur in real time" coda that got dropped circa season three. Compared to the start of season six, season seven is a much quieter, smarter affair, that's also better paced, more realistic and all the more interesting for it. Not totally realistic - this is 24 after all - but certainly closer to reality than it has been for a few seasons.
CTU is dead. It has ceased to be. Now the FBI's doing all its work - ooh, just like in real life - and Jack Bauer, back from Africa after the TV movie, is in front of the Senate having to answer for human rights abuses from seasons one to six.
But the FBI comes in, subpoenas him and drags him away since Soul Patch - aka Tony Almeida - has turned bad and is trying to make a MacGuffin: a magic device that breaches the government's equally magical cross-industry firewall, which not only stops hackers getting in, it gives them the passwords too, apparently.
Soon, Jack Bauer, as reticently as usual, is trying to save the US from the big bad, this time with the assistance of a slightly dull female FBI agent. And before you know it, there are great big revelations about who's behind it all and what's happened to Chloe and Bill over the last four years.
What makes season seven more interesting than usual is that we've lost a few of the standard tropes. While there are traitors everywhere, the big bad isn't Muslims or Europeans (at least not yet), but Africans who are a bit miffed at US intervention in their affairs. Jack is no longer a maverick working within the system, with rules that need to be circumvented, he's outside the system altogether, without constant contact with the new (female) president.
More importantly, time has moved on and we're no longer in the same post-9/11, conservative atmosphere that enabled 24 to thrive and indulge its worst tendencies. In an Obama age, torture needs a justification that lasts longer than five minutes, American interventions overseas, particularly in Africa, aren't seen as automatically excusable, and the state is the only organisation capable of funding the kinds of nefarious expeditions that 24 usually gives its bad guys.
That's not to say 24 has gone all leftie. It's quite clear that certain unpleasant things need to be done in the real world and anyone who disagrees is naive - it just knows it has to explain that point of view now.
With this more down-at-heel attitude, 24 seems better able to sustain its pace, at least over these first four episodes. While season six's first four episodes dipped in the middle then achieved a new high at the end of the fourth, season seven is consistently well paced and tense - and is impressive with its action scenes in a way that many other shows, particularly Terminator: TSCC, can only dream of. While it doesn't achieve that season six high, it manages to preserve believabilty as far as possible.
The relocation to Washington, DC, is also working out well. In place of the rundown LA and its unbelievably traffic-free environs, DC's Jefferson Memorial, the Mall and less constricted streets make a far more attractive backdrop for the show, and make more sense: which self-respecting terrorist tries to bring the government down from LA? It's also makes the show much lighter, with the airy FBI buildings a suitable antidote to the oppressive CTU basement.
Even the regulars seem better. Kiefer Sutherland is one more a man-god while a voice of silk after a season of blubbing his little girl eyes out; Carlos Bernard gets to be cool in a way he was never able to before; and Mary Lynn Rajskub and James Morrison get to act like relatively normal people who haven't been contaminated by a histrionics virus, wringing their hands over poor old Jack and what's being done to him the whole time.
In terms of faults, the season has a few so far. The FBI agents aren't that interesting, and Janeane Garofalo, despite her best efforts, and her other techie colleagues are basically just Chloe-lites without much to do except type at computers. Despite being described as British and ex-SAS, bigger bad Peter Wingfield (Methos from Highlander) has a cod-American accent for some reason, although his performance is otherwise impressive and cucumber cool. There are a few jumps in logic, of course, but nothing too upsetting. The sub-plot involving the First Gentleman and his son's suicide is proving unrewarding at the moment. And despite having had two black Presidents so few other places to go dramatically, the producers' choice of a very Hillary-esque President almost feels like a production gamble made a year ago that they're now probably regretting.
Normally, things get a little duller from here and I'm sure that given the strength of 24: Redemption, there's going to be something insultingly inept done with the African plot at some point. But I've got my fingers crossed for this season: it seems to have learned from its mistakes, even if Jack Bauer hasn't.
Here's a YouTube trailer and a behind-the-scenes interview with the producers: