Let's face it, all you really want to know is this: Is "24: Live Another Day" the good kind of "24" or the not-so-good kind?
Rest easy: Going by the first two hours, this new incarnation of the show exactly as "24"-ish as you'd want it to be. Jack is back, he's as monosyllabic as ever, and damn it, he doesn't have time to explain himself to you!
Luckily enough, there are other characters around to supply exposition, so that even if (like me), you checked out some time before the show reached the end of its previous eight-season run, you'll be up to speed in no time. All you really need to know is that Jack is a fugitive on the run when "24: LAD" begins, and, of course, there are a bunch of bad guys who will not cease and desist with their eeee-vil shenanigans.
More factoids that may get you to tune in: Chloe (Mary Lynn Rajskub) is back too, this time with an extra serving of Goth eyeliner; "Chuck" star Yvonne Strahovski provides an able supporting performance, as do William Devane and Stephen Fry, who play the American president and the Prime Minister of the U.K., respectively; "Attack the Block" actor John Boyega, who was recently announced as one of the stars of the seventh "Star Wars" film, also makes an appearance in this 12-part season.
Actually, the most relevant thing to know about this season of "24" is that there are only a dozen episodes, which I hope means a lot less meandering detours that basically consist of Jack whacking random low-level perps and shouting at Chloe about information he needs now! Not that those elements of the show don't have their occasional charms, but the hope is that the shorter season allows "24's" propulsive elements, not its wheel-spinning tendencies, to come to the fore. Certainly the season premiere, as directed by "24" veteran Jon Cassar, has plenty of pop and on-location energy.
"24" occupies a weird pop-culture niche in that it's a highly formulaic show with a format that was once seen as radical, and it's a popcorn action-thriller that aspires to (and sometimes does) provide a snapshot of our geo-political anxieties. It's like one of those chain restaurants that apes the look and the feel of a mom and pop diner even as it hews to a set of very specific instructions from corporate. But damn it, Chloe, the meal goes down so well that you forgive the pretensions of depth and originality.
Even more than it did when it functioned as an expression of our post-Sept. 11 fears, this generally efficient version of "24" gestures in the direction of topicality without really delving into the burning issues of the day. There are characters whose dialogue and actions recall the furors surrounding Edward Snowdon, Julian Assange and Wikileaks, and there are references to everything we've learned about the NSA and the surveillance states that now exists in the U.S. and U.K. ("24: LAD" takes place in London.) Drones are a hot topic, but let's not kid ourselves: "24's" favorite weapons have always Jack Bauer's fists of fury. I wouldn't go so far as to say that "24" exclusively promotes the idea that might equals right, but it's not often that we're led to believe that Jack's ends don't justify his bloody means.
That said, Jack Bauer remains an interesting artifact, not just due to Kiefer Sutherland's solid, committed performance, but because of the conflicted space he's carved out for himself in our pop-culture continuum. Jack, who has cut himself off from his family and any kind of authority, is both an avenging angel and a nightmare of vengeance-fueled id. If nothing else, he is more efficient than most formulaic blockbusters, in that he can function as both the hero and (occasionally) villain of the piece. Given how far "Homeland" went off the rails in its most recent season, it's easier to appreciate, on some level, the singularity and even the superficiality of Jack's eternal mission to prevent Bad Stuff from happening.
Of course, Jack is often seen as a dangerous loose cannon by bureaucrats who hew to the rules, and "24" not so subtly reinforces the idea that rules are often a shield that weak, conniving losers hide behind (this time around, Benjamin Bratt and Tate Donovan have the largely thankless tasks of playing characters who deliver exposition and bluster pointlessly about whatever Jack is up to at that moment). And I certainly don't mean to imply that "24" is better than "Homeland" -- in fact, I would give anything to see the Showtime drama's Saul Berenson give Jack a lecture on why societies need agreed-upon limits in order to function.
All things considered, it's good that "24" took some time off before returning, and it's even better that the run for "Live Another Day" won't clock in at a potentially punishing 24 installments. For now, I'm ready to watch one more adventure story about the man who can save us from evil, even if the man, and the premise, feel like refugees from a bloody fairy tale.
"24: Live Another Day" premieres Monday, May 5, at 8 p.m. ET on Fox.