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Jack in a box: 24 returns to re-save the world

Jack assumes the position before a Senate investigative committee, but is soon back on the streets with tough FBI agent Renee Walker.

Here we go again, even if it's been a longer wait than planned.

The U.S. government once more is compromised from within, as is the FBI in the face of terrorist threats to just about everything. Caught in these pincers, yet another new president talks a tough game while constantly wondering what the hell else can go wrong.

Brows furrow, jaws clench and smiles are in shorter supply than digital converter box coupons. Sounds like another typical holiday for 24 and Jack Bauer as Season 7 barges into view with a two-part, four-hour, Sunday-Monday launch (7 to 9 p.m. central both nights).

We begin with a violent, broad daylight abduction of the pudgy chief of the government's infrastructure security system for the Homeland Security's Firewall Project. That's a mouthful, but it boils down to this: A reprogrammed little "CIP device" gives terrorists control of all commercial airlines flights among many other things. And that's not good.

Meanwhile, an uncommonly suit-and-tied Jack (Kiefer Sutherland) is having to put up with an early morning congressional committee hearing headed by an officious senator named Blaine Meyer (Kurtwood Smith from That '70s Show). His interrogation methods -- namely torture -- are being investigated, but Jack is unrepentant and even a little saucy. He resents, for instance, the "smug look" on Sen. Meyer's face. When saving the world, you do what's necessary, says Jack. "I simply adapted."

Season 6 of 24, which ended way back in May 2007 before the writers' strike intervened, ran into criticism for its depictions of torture as a necessary and effective means of getting terrorists to talk. Season 7 conducts something of a seminar on this subject during Sunday's opening two hours. But it seems pretty obvious where the show still stands.

In a somewhat labored scene Sunday night, an FBI driver tells Jack that the Senate committee shouldn't have been so rough on him. But Jack says he's fair game because "we've done so many secret things over the years in the name of protecting this country, we've created two worlds -- ours and the people we've promised to protect. They deserve to know the truth. Then they can decide how far they want to let us go."

This little sermonette might hold a bit more water if Jack hadn't effectively threatened a scumbag with torture just a bit earlier while under the close eye of comely FBI agent Renee Walker (a strong 24 debut by Annie Wersching). She's a bit aghast at first , but eventually resorts to her own strong-armed tactics in Monday night's Hour 4.

As always, it's all for the greater good. And most 24 fans probably aren't thinking too deeply about any of this anyhow All that's wanted is a slam-bang good show with an ever-changing variety of semi-plausible twists and turns. For better or worse, this isn't a debating society. It's freakin' 24.

Some of the early dialogue can be a bit torturous, too. As when agent Walker barks, "Hey, look, Jack, I read your file. I know you have a propensity for not trusting people."

Real people don't talk that way. It's likewise a groaner when 24's first woman president, Allison Taylor (Cherry Jones), informs an aide that "grief is a luxury I can't afford right now."

She's referring to the recent death of her son and the growing mental instability of First Gentleman Henry Taylor (Colm Feore), who remains convinced it wasn't a suicide.

By the way, if you're counting, this is 24's sixth U.S. president since the show premiered in November, 2001. We briefly pause to picture all of them in order of succession.

24's presidents -- Top from left: David Palmer, John Keeler, Charles Logan. Bottom from left: Wayne Palmer, Noah Daniels, Allison Taylor

Presidents David Palmer, now deceased, and Charles Logan, still under house arrest somewhere, likewise had highly problematic, unhinged spouses. On 24 it's seldom enough to vex a president with the imminent demise of the free world. You also have to have a near-lumatic sleeping next to you in the White House bedroom.

Sunday's return engagement also marks the re-appearance of onetime CTU agent Tony Almeida (Carlos Bernard), who seemingly died in Jack's arms midway through Season 5. 24 executive producer Howard Gordon, in a form letter to TV critics, says, "Taking some creative license that we hope our fans will appreciation, we've resurrected one of the show's most beloved characters."

Well, maybe not beloved. But Tony definitely added some zing to the show, and does so again in a buzz-cut that suggests he's gone over to the dark side. We'll leave it at that, save to say that Sunday's second hour ends with Jack demanding of Tony, "What happened to you? What the hell happened to you?" It's a helluva hook.

Former CTU agents Bill Buchanan (James Morrison) and Chloe O'Brian (Mary Lynn Rajskub) also are back with Jack, but in altered states. You'll have to wait until Monday's third hour (10 to 11 a.m.) to see how they've adapted to all the decay from within and without.

Janeane Garofalo re-enters, too. As computer whiz Janis Gold, she's essentially the FBI's version of the always harried Chloe. Both provide welcome little specks of humor, as does Jack when he says, "This is gonna hurt" before flooring a hot-wired car while on its floorboards. A hail of bullets and a flying leap from a parking garage ensue. That's entertainment.

All in all, 24 is off to another typically rousing start, with the fate of innocents abroad and at home in the balance. Those who watched November's placeholder 24: Redemption movie or its repeat last Sunday know that fictional Sangala, Africa also figures into Season 7's tangled web. Will President Taylor save its civilians from further mass genocide at the hands of a blackmailing warlord? Or might she knuckle under to the dictums of yet another hardballing chief of staff (Bob Gunton as Ethan Kanin), who tells Madame prez: "A superpower has to act first and foremost in its own best interests."

President-elect Barack Obama might find all of this to be welcome escapist viewing. His real-life presidency will be beset with myriad problems from Day One. But it presumably won't ever get as bad as on 24, where America's unofficial Secretary of Homeland Kick-Ass still can't get a moment's peace.