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Special to msnbc.com
updated 12/15/2003 12:13:11 PM ET 2003-12-15T17:13:11
COMMENTARY

Kiefer Sutherland must be exhausted. Over the course of two days, his character on Fox’s “24,” counter-terrorism expert Jack Bauer, has experienced more heartbreak, death, loss and explosions than all the other people in Los Angeles combined. And he’s done it all without stopping to use the bathroom.

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Now, after he foiled a plot to assassinate a presidential candidate, thwarted a nuclear bomb explosion in downtown L.A., lost his wife, averted a war, and, oh yeah, died, you’d think they’d let Bauer take a few days off.

But he and his team at the high-tech Counter Terrorist Unit (CTU) are back for more. The third season, premiering Oct. 28 on Fox, picks up three years after Season Two, with terrorists threatening to unleash a deadly virus on Los Angeles. If you think Jack Bauer is going to sit back and let it happen, you don’t know Jack.

Fast-paced as it is, it’s not too late to hop on the “24” bandwagon. Seasons one and two are available on DVD, so it’s easy to get up to speed. But really, there’s not all that much to catch up on.

Know this: Tortured soul Bauer, his trouble-magnet of a daughter Kim, and his coworkers at CTU (hmm … some of them, anyway) are working feverishly to avert a catastrophe of epic proportions, sidestepping traitors and deception along the way. Their day unfurls in real-time over the course of 24 episodes, and the audience gets to see every nail-biting second — often through multiple camera angles.

Subtle, it’s not. While many shows make use of a rapidly approaching deadline to build tension, “24” goes them one further and makes sure the audience is aware of every cringe-inducing tick of the clock. Thanks to a periodic on-screen timer, viewers are reminded of just how much — or, more importantly, how little — time is left for Bauer & Co. to pull America’s fat out of the fryer.

“24” is like a cup of convenience store coffee. You know it’s bad for you, it makes your heart race, and it sometimes leaves a bitter taste in your mouth. And yet you can’t stop enjoying it.

The caffeinated blend of suspense, action and intrigue has mesmerized viewers, spawning fan Web sites, re-igniting Sutherland’s career, and launching plentiful — if mostly lame — show memorabilia. Experience the thrill of the “24” dry-erase board! Marvel at the leather-like serviceability of the “24” checkbook cover! But hey, if sipping from an official replica of a CTU coffee mug makes a guy feel like he’s CTU operative Tony Almeida, then more power to me. I mean him.

Which side are you on? 
Speaking of Almeida, Carlos Bernard’s portrayal of the suave agent caught in the political machinations between the big bosses and the agents on the street adds an ambiguity to the mix that keeps viewers guessing. Whose agenda is he pushing? Is he actually on Jack Bauer’s side, or is he working from the sidelines to gum up the works? And he’s not the only one with an uncertain allegiance.

Is Michelle Dessler dirty? Was Kate Warner, ostensibly Bauer’s love interest in Season Two, actually in league with her terrorist sister? The best characters on “24” echo Almeida’s far-from-cut-and-dried loyalties:

Take George Mason (Xander Berkeley), CTU’s jerk of a boss. In Season Two, Mason found himself on the business end of a haz-mat accident and spent a dozen episodes slowly succumbing to radiation poisoning — and gaining a soul in the process. A thorn in Jack Bauer’s side since the beginning of the show, Mason more than redeemed himself with his final act, taking over the controls of a plane carrying a nuclear bomb, and allowing Bauer to parachute to safety.

Berkeley’s real-life wife Sarah Clarke created another character caught in a moral ping-pong match. For most of the first season, CTU agent Nina Myers fought the good fight with the rest of the crew. Revealed as Season One’s surprise turncoat, though, Nina killed Bauer’s wife and escaped.

She reared her duplicitous head for part of the second season, when she and Bauer were forced to work together. Clarke’s slightly uncomfortable, but mostly nonplussed reactions to Jack’s clenched-teeth threats produced some of the season’s most satisfying emotional moments.

Not all the most intriguing characters cash their checks at the CTU credit union. Confirming the fears of henpecked grooms everywhere, viewers discovered that debutante Marie Warner, when not planning her elaborate wedding, spent her nights as an international terrorist plotting to destroy Los Angeles. As played by Laura Harris, Marie emitted emotionless devotion to her cause one minute, little-girl tantrums the next. Bridezilla, indeed.

And best of all, former First Lady Sherry Palmer. Penny Johnson Jerald wrapped her acting chops around the show’s most richly drawn — and ambiguously driven — character. As President David Palmer’s (Dennis Haysbert) scheming-then-supportive-then-scheming-again wife (then ex-wife), Johnson Jerald quickly became TV’s favorite sharply dressed conspirator. Alexis Carrington, watch your back.

No character is beyond reproach. What’s subtly shading each of these people (the ones who stick around for another season, anyway) is the stink of suspicion that hangs on them like bad cologne. Even if a character acted heroically one season, perhaps their true colors have yet to be revealed.

Not every character on “24” is as deliciously compelling. The ones that fall flattest are the ones with the fewest dimensions.

Sure, Jack’s wife Teri (Leslie Hope) was little more than a plot device, but her cardboard character finally did pay off — in one startling, dramatic moment in the last minutes of the first season. After being subjected to standard soap-opera subplots all “day” long (getting kidnapped, casting jealous stares at Jack’s onetime paramour Nina, developing amnesia), Teri’s sudden death triggered Jack’s slide into depression and rage — and set the stage for Season Two.

L'il Kim
But despite Teri’s wafer-thin development, she was the stuff of Shakespeare when compared to a certain other annoying member of the Bauer family. Yes, she’s blonde. She’s perky. She’s ridiculously lucky to be alive. She’s three little letters that many viewers can barely stand to utter. Say it together, now:

Kim.

Rest assured, if there’s a wrong decision to be made, boneheaded Kim Bauer (Elisha Cuthbert) will make it, plunging her — and anyone nearby — deeper and deeper into trouble. Over the course of one particularly bad day, she drew the ire of a child-abusing nut, almost killed a cop, caused a national panic over a nuclear bomb, befriended a wily survivalist, and stared down a cougar, generating audience snickers every time she appeared onscreen.

It seems as if the only thing that hasn’t yet happened to Kim is for a safe to fall on her head. Maybe the writers are saving it for Season Three.

But don’t think for a minute that Fox is going to let its one shot at attracting hormonal teenage boys slip away. Cuthbert’s tight T-shirts and Maxim pin-up looks add considerable cheesecake appeal to this testosterone-fest. Don’t be surprised if an anatomically correct Kim action figure (complete with super poor-judgment action!) is the first one to show up on store shelves.

In fact, in Season Three, Kim is integrated further into the story with a sharp pantsuit, new boyfriend (she’s dating daddy’s partner) and, believe it or not, a job at CTU. Sure, makes sense. Why not offer a high-profile counter-terrorism job to a former nanny with a criminal record as long as her arm? Tom Ridge must be so proud.

If it’s any consolation, odds are good that Kim will spill her Diet Coke on a keyboard and start a global thermonuclear war her first day on the new job.

Fortunately, “24” puts so many treats on the buffet table at once, even if you bite into an occasional clinker of a character, you’re not going to go hungry.

All work and no play
So what about Jack Bauer? Equally mopey, intense, hard-nosed, resourceful and startlingly capable of violence, his character is the lynchpin around which everything revolves.

But this lynchpin can be frustratingly passive. In past seasons, Bauer has reacted more often than he acted, and Sutherland was reduced to grimacing determinedly for hours on end. With so many plotlines converging at once, information flies fast and furiously, and Bauer scarcely has a moment to decide on a course of action, let alone lay out a plan — or emote.

Much of his time has been spent glued to a cell phone, getting updates from the other characters, barking orders, or chatting with his daughter, who went and got her leg caught in an animal trap.

This year, though, Bauer has the potential to grow into a fully realized character. A dark secret he’s carrying injects the man with a needed pathos and depth, elevating him above stock hero status. Difficult to read, but easy to root for, Jack Bauer — with a little added dramatic weight — could easily become this year’s most interesting television character.

If he survives the season, that is. “24” has made it all too clear that any character could be killed off, at any time.

Producers have intimated that even Jack Bauer’s not immune from a sudden and surprising offing. But don’t count on a Kieferless “24,” at least not yet.

After all, this is the job that rescued him from a future of direct-to-video obscurity. Like his TV alter ego, Sutherland will likely stick with it until the very last second ticks off the clock.

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