24's return will be a big blowout | None | Uncle Barky's Bytes

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Jacked up: 24's return will be a big blowout

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Jump back, Jack. 24's superman still cleans up pretty good.

24's sixth season won't dawn until Sunday, Jan. 14, when Fox shoots it out of the gate with four hours over two nights.

Still, what's a TV critic to do upon receiving those episodes under cover of a big, white, unmarked box that also housed a 24: Behind the Scenes coffee table book? Devour 'em in one sitting, that's what. And now I'm reporting back to you with all due speed and caution.

Fox has sent these episodes out with the full knowledge that the Internet is a tattletale of immense proportions. But as the network notes in its cover letter: "Last year you complied with our request that you not reveal the most explosive plot twists in your reviews and we genuinely appreciated it. As a result, we're pleased again to offer all four (Fox's emphasis) of the opening episodes for your review."

Furthermore, classified secrets are at stake. So let's get down to it. "We ask that you refrain from mentioning a few key moments, specifically, the exact nature of how Jack is expected to 'sacrifice' himself, and what happens in the final minutes of the first and fourth hours. (Fox emphasis) We know this may prove challenging when writing your reviews, but we believe that preserving the more significant twists of 24 until broadcast is what delivers the most rewarding viewing experience."

Never mind that Fox's on-air promotions of upcoming episodes have been known to give away some of those "more significant twists." But the point is well-taken, and no honorable critic would do something like that. Who said Uncle Barky was honorable, though? So here's the . . . sorry, just kidding. Instead let's touch on some talking points and overall first impressions of Season 6:

***Agent Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) has been held under extreme duress by the Chinese government for the past 20 months. He's got the hollowed, haunted look and the scars on his back to prove it.

***Extreme terrorism again is at loose in the U.S. 24's first hour (6 to 7 a.m.) opens with a "Fox News Alert" of a bombing in San Antonio. President Wayne Palmer (DB Woodside), brother of the late president David Palmer, has been in office for just three months. His brow's already furrowed. Going unmentioned in the first four episodes are snaky former president Charles Logan (Gregory Itzin) and his wife, Martha (Jean Smart), although both are slated to return this season.

***There are too many "Fox News Alerts." Product placement is all well and good, but the people at CTU and the White House should switch the channel to CNN or MSNBC once in a while. Yeah, like that's gonna happen.

***Jack is flown back from China because who else is gonna clean up this mess? Extricating him has cost the U.S. a steep price, we're told. There are no further details, but bear that in mind as the season marches on.

***Even by 24's standards, Jack gets the quickest shave and haircut in the history of humankind. In fact it very much borders on being laughably quick in this always taut-faced thriller/chiller.

***Trailers for 24 already have shown Jack saying, "I understand what's expected of me." And "I can die for something. My way, my choice." We won't spill further details, although it's clear that Jack is emotionally spent and ready to greet the hereafter. Five seasons of mostly pure hell can do that to a man.

***The first hour spills plenty of blood, much of it Jack's. But he's not done yet, and the final few minutes are a jarring testament to that. Grisly, powerful and classic 24.

***Notable new characters introduced in the first four hours are hardline presidential advisor Thomas Lennox (Peter MacNicol) and the president's sister, Sandra (Regina King), idealistic lawyer for the hard-pressed Islamic American Alliance. The Oval Office give-and-take seems stilted in the early going. Maybe it's because both the actors and the characters are new at their jobs.

***Jack continues to see himself as half the man he used to be, even if his actions still speak louder than his words. "I don't know how to do this anymore," he says in Hour 2. And in the truly shocking Hour 4: "I can't do this anymore . . . I'm done." Don't believe him.

***Hour 2 is dedicated at its end to the Aircrew of Gunshot 66 -- Maj. Gerald "Beav" Bloomfield and Capt. Michael "Martini" Martino. Their Marine Corps helicopter was shot down over Western Iraq on Nov. 2, 2005.

***24 remains an unsurpassed, unpredictable bullet train. These first four hours of Season 6 take the series to new depths of toil and trouble, with its bent, stooped but still resilient hero fatefully on the receiving end of a new president's clarion call.

"Get me Jack Bauer. Immediately," he orders. Enough said.