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On the clock It's still a thrill ride, but '24' may be running out of fresh ideas

Like "24" superhero Jack Bauer, I'm not sure I can take it anymore. Now in its sixth, 24-hour season, the Fox thrill ride appears to be in danger of becoming a parody of itself.
I'm not saying the first four hours of the series isn't the usual fast-paced, tense adventure ride loaded with surprising and shocking moments.

It is just that we've seen so much of this before -- including the miraculous and ludicrous physical recovery powers of Jack, played by Kiefer Sutherland. There are also the possible Muslim extremists next door; the middle-class parent who shocks himself by the lengths he'll go to protect his family; the myriad unintentionally humorous office affairs; the CTU agent and presidential adviser with hidden agendas; the president's family problems and his angst over picking one of the tortuous, no-win options available to him.

Fortunately, the writers don't give one much time to think about all the improbable and silly moments, because it seems like there are more than usual this time around.
It isn't fair to the viewer to reveal too much about the events of the first four hours, from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday and Monday. (For Time Warner Cable viewers the airing of the show depends on an agreement between Time Warner Cable and Sinclair Broadcasting.) Fox sent out a release last summer announcing that Wayne Palmer (D.B. Woodside), the brother of the late, great President David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert), is the president two years after President Logan (Emmy-nominated Gregory Itzin) left office in disgrace. Wayne's sister, Angela (Regina King), is almost as big a pain to the new President Palmer as the wife of David Palmer was to his administration.

It is unclear how Wayne Palmer became president, but one assumes his brother's martyrdom might have fueled his campaign. Naturally, Wayne needs Jack, who has spent the last two years in a Chinese prison and has scars of torture on his back to prove it.

The opening hour cleverly brings Jack back into action. His soul is also tortured. He repeatedly has self-doubts about his own abilities to defuse the latest terrorist nuclear threat in Los Angeles and several other areas of the country.
"I don't know how to do this anymore," says Jack.
"You'll remember," predicts a terrorist.
Of course, the terrorist is right. The first four hours include lookaway scenes of torture and brutality inflicted on and by Jack that won't appeal to the squeamish. There is a decent plot twist that warns against governments and their citizens jumping to conclusions. And there are several timely but cliched political discussions about ethnic profiling and the abuse of citizens rights in the name of national security that seem better suited to the nightly news or Sunday morning talk shows.
And then there's Chloe O'Brian (Mary Lynn Rajskub), Jack's biggest supporter in the CTU. The show's producer has acknowledged she has been softened, which may be responsible for her increased popularity with men.
Chloe still has Jack's best interests at heart and is willing to break the law to save him. Despite his doubts, Jack has better instincts than anyone on the president's staff, especially better than those of Thomas Lennox (played by Peter MacNicol of "Ally McBeal"), the latest presidential adviser who appears to have a hidden agenda.
After a riveting and award-winning Season 5, this year's installment of "24" had a tough act to follow. The start isn't exactly revolutionary or inspiring.
Like Jack, the series could have some remarkable recovery powers during the next 20 hours. Fox has already announced that this year's guest list will include the return of Itzin and Jean Smart (who played last season's pill-popping first lady) and the arrival of Powers Boothe as the new vice president, James Cromwell as Jack's estranged dad, Chad Lowe as a politician, Rick Schroder as a CTU agent and British comedian Eddie Izzard as a villain.
With a cast like that, it is hard to doubt that "24" will be intensely popular again if viewers don't mind seeing it repeat itself.

e-mail: apergament@buffnews.com

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>TV Review

"24"
Review: Three stars (out of four)
8 p.m. Sunday and Monday on WUTV

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