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Halfway through day, ‘24’ needs to pick up pace

Jack Bauer’s sixth day of hell is now halfway complete, but “24” dropped its biggest bomb so far early on, and that wasn’t the nuclear bomb that went off in an L.A. suburb.  By Andy Dehnart
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

Despite a nuclear explosion near Los Angeles, the threat of additional detonations, the potential suspension of civil liberties, and an attempted presidential assassination by White House staff members, the most compelling story this season of “24” has been one from last season.

Jack Bauer’s sixth day of hell is now halfway complete, but “24” dropped its biggest bomb so far early on, and that wasn’t the nuclear bomb that went off in an L.A. suburb. Instead, it was the revelation that the person behind the events of last season — and, to some degree, the drama this season — was Bauer's own brother.

However implausible and coincidental, the unmasking of Graem as a Bauer created a powerful and particularly challenging adversary for Jack, whose family has been his greatest weakness over the past five seasons. Complicating Jack’s life was Graem’s wife, Marilyn, who chose Jack’s brother over him, and her son, Josh, who in every subsequent scene seems more like he actually might be Jack’s son.

There was also Jack’s estranged father, Phillip, played gravely by James Cromwell. Because no character on “24” makes it through a few episodes without revealing an unexpected side to themselves, Phillip was soon revealed to be the actual mastermind behind last season’s events, and is responsible for his company’s sale of nuclear weapons to the terrorists this season.

Adding to the theme of family, one of those terrorists, Fayed, revealed early on that he was motivated partly by revenge, as Jack Bauer killed his brother. Thus, while trying to save the world from a man seeking retribution, Jack Bauer had to battle his own evil father and criminal brother while protecting his nephew/son.

“24” was on track to have another riveting season, but the writers have squandered the opportunity they created, and after 12 hours, the show lacks a coherent direction.

He ain't evil, he's my brother
First, the show’s writers abandoned Graem’s potential as a foil by having Jack capture and torture his brother to near-death, first with a plastic bag and then with chemicals. Last season, Graem was a completely flat character, ordering the president around via his Bluetooth headset, orchestrating terrorist attacks to enhance his bottom line. This season, beyond learning that Graem was the good son, at least in the eyes of Jack’s father, we learned little more about his motivations. Jack’s response to the shocking news was little more than a pained facial expression.

Soon after, their father killed Graem, and we learned that Phillip Bauer was actually the true mastermind. But the writers also ruined Jack’s father’s potential as a villain, turning him into an evil character far too quickly and then abandoning him. Phillip has now been completely absent for two hours.

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Jack’s father’s motivation is also unclear. Threatening to kill his grandson, he said coldly, “No one’s life is worth the destruction of everything I’ve built.” What he’s built or why that’s turned him into a conspiracy-manufacturing automaton has yet to be revealed.

The genius of last season was that the president, Charles Logan, was a presence from the very beginning, and his ultimate transformation into a villain was both shocking and believable.

Gregory Itzin played Logan convincingly by never abandoning the persona he’d so persuasively established during the season’s first half. Unsurprisingly, the show returned to Logan last week, perhaps hoping that he’d provide the momentum this season desperately needs.

The sixth season has introduced characters with the potential to be Loganesque, but it just hasn’t taken advantage of them. For example, with his plans for suspending civil liberties rejected by the president, Palmer’s chief of staff Tom Lennox went along with a plan suggested by his deputy (played with commitment by Chad Lowe) to facilitate the assassination of the president.

But he quickly changed his mind, or at least decided to act on the information he had, thus making him a more plausible but less interesting character. That actually happened again during the most recent episode, the 5 p.m. hour, following the assassination attempt. Lennox seemed to agree to go along with their plans, but then turned over his chief of staff and bomb-building co-conspirator to the Secret Service, revealing their plan to frame terrorist-turned-diplomat Al-Assad.

However, having a geeky physicist academic as a conspirator might not really work. Guest-starring as Lennox is Peter MacNicol, who’s on leave from “Numb3rs,” where his physicist character is allegedly in orbit. But considering the way MacNicol channels his “Numb3rs” character, Larry Fleinhardt, on “24,” his character seems more like he’s making a cross-over appearance.

Lennox/Fleinhardt/MacNicol rubs his chin pensively and argues clearly and definitively, although here he’s talking about national security, not math.

Likewise, in his role as the vice president, Powers Boothe seems to be drawing from his “Deadwood” character, Cy Tolliver. Without the mustache and ascot but with the same icy disposition, he plays Noah Daniels as a man in command who is blind to anything except his self-described “aggressive agenda of national security, one that will out of necessity suspend certain civil liberties.” Tolliver would no doubt be in complete agreement about that necessity. Having assumed the duties of the president, Daniels is now in a position to become another Logan, using his new power for his own purposes. But his thirst for that power is so obvious and transparent that the only real surprise would be if he turned out to be a pacifist who’s a member of the ACLU.

At least the guest stars get to do something. The regulars have to be content with standing around answering the phone, like the writers have had Bill Buchanan do about five times every episode. There’s also been relatively little assistance for Jack from fan favorite Chloe, who’s too busy covering for her alcoholic ex-husband Morris, who created a detonator for nuclear bombs after having a particularly nasty looking corkscrew bit drilled into his back by his terrorist kidnappers.

After 12 hours, this season feels like the first few hours of any other season of “24,” where the show searches for a solid rope to climb up the rest of the season. Producer Howard Gordon has admitted as much, telling Entertainment Weekly that writers have “struggled much more with trying to find that big idea, and if you don’t find it, it’s like mining coal with your hands: It’s really bloody and it’s ugly.”

This season, there’s been plenty of bloody and ugly, just not much else.

is a writer and teacher who publishes reality blurred, a daily summary of reality TV news.