"I don't have any friends," or so says Jack Bauer to his Serbian associate Belcheck, just after breaking Chloe out of a CIA black site, near the end of the first hour of 24's new season (which breaks with the past and only shows 12 hours out of the pivotal day). Chloe later upbraids Jack, saying they were friends, that he just should have asked. Nervously blinking off his manipulation, Jack pushes forward, trying to unearth the latest sinister plot, this time involving the hacking of drones and the assassination plot against now President Heller (We welcome William Devane back into the role). Despite Jack's usual gruffness and subterfuge, Chloe declares she knows him and fights to help him track down this season's terrorist innovator Derek Yates. Jack clearly does have a friend.
Once again we are pulled into Jack's story. It only comes at the end of that hour, for when the story first introduces Jack, CIA agents have cornered him, and the viewers are on the outside, wondering what his motivations are. Kiefer Sutherland plays Jack as cold and distant in these moments; we wonder what has happened to him over these four years, and why he did give himself up. The moment we see Chloe being tortured in "Special Activities," we begin to suspect.
Despite Director Steve Navarro's (played by Law & Order actor Benjamin Bratt--it is good to see him again) attempted interrogation, it is only newly introduced Kate Morgan (Chuck actress Yvonne Strahovski makes an excellent transition from spoof to thriller.) who alone figures out Jack's true motives. Kate serves at least two purposes in these opening hours: (1) she looks like a female version of Jack Bauer, interpreting clues that others dismiss while also subverting rules (using a taser gun on a guard escorting her out of the CIA site) in pursuit of what she thinks is right, and (2) she resembles Marshal Samuel Gerard (from The Fugitive) in doggedly pursuing an innocent man, who in an intimate whisper (near the end of episode 2) tells her she is pursuing the wrong man.
Familiar 24 beats are here: Jack is connected to an explosion in the CIA (replacing CTU) site; there is a torture sequence (relatively short in comparison to past ones) and a gory plot-twist; a crowd of people around Kate and Jack completely ignore their pleas to pursue the true dangers; political idealists jockey with politicians who have made compromises; and Chloe's tech prowess is again put to the test. The show continues also to portray pertinent political debates, showing the British public protesting in the streets, before President Heller, the American use of unmanned drones in combat, and including Chloe's involvement in a group, led by Adrian Cross, who leaks government intelligence to the public.
There are some human moments in the mix, particularly in scenes where President Heller and daughter Audrey (Kim Raver returns and gives a fragile, though not timid, presence in her limited scenes.) wrestle with his apparent Alzheimer's. His wide smiles are heart-wrenchingly ominous, and we understand why his chief of staff Mark Boudreau (Hostages' Tate Donovan) is concerned--while we also begin to wonder whether he is the new "insider" villain of the season, even as he seeks to "protect" Audrey from Jack. The truncated season has some upset, but if it means limiting the soap-opera elements of previous seasons, I think it will be for the better.
Throughout this season we will be wondering what Jack has done for four years and why he is back. He tells Chloe he's risking his life again because he owes the Hellers, and she says they belong to the system that betrayed them. She wonders whether he's chasing some illusion that he'll earn a pardon and will be able to return to family life with his daughter and grandchildren, but Jack says there is no going back for him. All he can do is press forward and do his best to stop the terrorist plot he's unearthed. It's prototypical 24, and I'm glad it's back.
New secondary characters also hold much promise, particularly Kate's partner Erik Ritter (played by The Wire's Gbenga Akinnagbe), who already is giving her a hard time, and Lt. Chris Tanner (John Boyega, who'll be in Star Wars VII), who is framed for the death of four soldiers, killed after a hacked drone fires a missile on an American-British convoy in Afghanistan. The new mastermind villain Margot (Game of Thrones' Michelle Fairley) also poses as a suitably menacing chess master, moving her pieces, including her daughter Simone, in for the kill. There is much depth to this cast, and minor scenes promise to be as well acted as the central ones.
Robert Cochran and Joel Surnow have done it again. The split screens and ticking clock are back after a four-year hiatus. Reportedly Kiefer Sutherland has been nervous whether the show in this return (now Season 9) can live up to its former greatness. If the premiere sets the pace for the rest of the season, he has nothing to worry about. As one who thinks the best seasons are two, four, five, and seven, I was personally disappointed where the writers left the character in Season 8. I welcome the show's return and look forward to the ride. It's great to see Kiefer back; his performance is as intense and mesmerizing as ever; it truly is a role of a lifetime, and it's a shame he's not watching with the rest of us.