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Welcome back, Jack! The clock ticks again for '24'

The first time “dammit” is uttered in “24: Live Another Day,” it does not come from Jack Bauer. In fact, four years after Jack looked up at Chloe — and viewers — and said goodbye, viewers won’t hear him speak at all until 31 minutes into the new special season.When he finally communicates, “Take me to her now,” there’s no doubt Jack’s back. It feels like Kiefer Sutherland’s

The first time “dammit” is uttered in “24: Live Another Day,” it does not come from Jack Bauer. In fact, four years after Jack looked up at Chloe — and viewers — and said goodbye, viewers won’t hear him speak at all until 31 minutes into the new special season.

When he finally communicates, “Take me to her now,” there’s no doubt Jack’s back. It feels like Kiefer Sutherland’s hero, and his special way of saying now, never left — which is a lot to say for a character with whom viewers have already spent 192 hours (plus a two-hour movie). 

Not many beloved long-running series could even consider returning after several years gone — let alone generate the kind of excitement Jack Bauer stirred on Super Bowl Sunday when Fox aired the first promos.  If that pumped you up, wait 'til you hear that familiar voiceover, "The folllowing takes place between 11:06 a.m. and 12 p.m." Sutherland thinks viewers have a hard time letting go of Jack because of everything the federal agent has lost while protecting his country. Viewers have spent eight long days with him, watching him work through impossible circumstances.

"Jack Bauer, as a character, might succeed in protecting the president but he loses his wife," Sutherland told TODAY during an interview in Los Angeles two days before production started in London. "And he never wins. But nobody does. You might get the raise, you might get the promotion, but your kid’s not doing well at school. There’s always something! I can’t remember a night that I went to bed that I thought, ‘Oh my God, not a single thing wrong!’ And this character does that on such a heightened level that I think people really identify with him. I certainly do. It’s really heightened, but because it is, it allows you to have the emotional response you kind of want to have for yourself.”

Sutherland, who won an Emmy for his work on the show, admitted to being terrified of reprising Jack for fear of ruining the franchise’s legacy. But if the first two episodes of the new season are an indication, he doesn’t need to worry. Seeing Jack running through the streets of Central London was as “surreal” for director and executive producer Jon Cassar as it will be for fans. Cassar worked on the show for six seasons, but not the final one.

Kiefer Sutherland reprises Jack Bauer in "24: Live Another Day," which premieres on May 5 on Fox.Daniel Smith / Today

“The very first day we worked with Kiefer, his first shot was the signature Jack Bauer running by the camera with his gun up,” Cassar said in a telephone interview from London. “I remember thinking, ‘My God, are you kidding me?’ I’d catch some of the actors, too, who have done the show before, saying 'This is really bizarre that we’re doing this again.' It had left a little hole in my heart that I wasn’t there to say ‘Action!’ for Jack’s final scene. I can’t even explain how great it is that I get the opportunity to do that now.”

Executive producer Howard Gordon said he had the same feeling while watching footage of the first episode.

“It was really like seeing an old friend,” Gordon said. “Everybody had the same smile on their face. I think the promise of seeing Jack again is really the main reason for doing this. I think we all really missed him. If you had asked me four years ago, I would have bet the house that that wouldn’t be the case. But I think Jack stayed interesting until the end. I was very happy with the way we ended it. I think that would have been a very elegant way to end it but we just missed him too much.”

“We care about him,” Cassar added. “He’s the kind of character you felt for and you wanted him to have a better day. I think that’s part of it too. We know he’s probably not going to have a good day but you’re wishing that he would have one good day, poor guy.”“

"24” ended with Jack as a fugitive from both the U.S. and Russian governments. In “24: Live Another Day,” four years have passed and Jack resurfaces in London for unclear reasons when President Heller (William Devane) is in town. Jack's CTU sidekick Chloe O’Brian (Mary-Lynn Rajskub) is also in London, sporting a new Goth Lisbeth Salander look. Neither of them is quite the way we remember them.

Mary Lynn Rajskub reprises her role as Chloe O'Brian on "24: Live Another Day."Christopher Raphael / Today

“If you take a look at the trajectory of every season, there’s always been a little bit of hope at the beginning and then it goes bad and he gets hotter and hotter as it goes,” said Sutherland, who is also an executive producer. “This year, Jack comes in hard as nails, doesn’t trust anybody. He doesn’t trust Chloe, he’s been isolated from his country, from his family, he knows if he tries to get back to the U.S. to tell his point of view, they’ll kill him. And he’s really pissed off. People who liked the dynamic between Jack and Chloe are going to find they’re not going to like Jack that much and they’re going to have parts of Chloe they’re not going to like either.”

That almost seems blasphemous. “Let’s put it this way,” Cassar explained, “Jack’s an unhappy guy. He’s been on the run for four years. He’s a leaner, meaner guy.”

The one thing that is exactly the same is the panic-inducing ticking clock, though it will skip some hours since the season consists of 12 episodes. Because the new show is set in London, and possibly will feature other European cities later in the season, there is no Counter Terrorism Unit. But there is the CIA.

Benjamin Bratt (“Law and Order”) plays the head of operations; and Gbenga Akinnagbe (“The Wire”), Yvonne Strahovski (“Dexter”), and Giles Mathey (“True Blood”) play agents. Michael Wincott (“Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves”) portrays an infamous hacker and Tate Donovan (“Damages”) plays the president’s chief of staff and husband to Audrey Raines (Kim Raver), Jack’s former love and Heller’s daughter.

“In other years, you understood front and center where Jack has been in between seasons,” Gordon said. “This year, we’re framing it differently and we learn it more slowly and in a different way than we’ve done before. I would say it’s more mythic than ever.”

But that doesn’t mean the actors and crew are more nervous than in past seasons, said Cassar, “because we are always nervous. But I think it’s like that fear that athletes have before a game. Once the whistle blows, you’re in it and you don’t think about it. You’re just in the game.”

Unlike most actors who play characters for a long time and long to be free of them, Sutherland says he’ll never tire of the unflappable Jack Bauer, who recharged his career.

“Leonard Cohen has written seventy-some odd verses to ‘Hallelujah’ and he said he’ll write it ‘til the day he dies,” Sutherland said. “It’s intrinsic to him. ’24’ is not ‘Hallelujah’ and I am not Leonard Cohen, but I understood that. There’s a symbiosis between me and that character. I think we’re very different but there’s a connection somehow and I like playing him. I feel comfortable playing him and I know what I want to do when I’m playing him and the character excites me about pushing him in other places and ways. I like it as an individual but I also like the collective band that we’re in — the writers, the actors, the crew. I missed it.”

The two-hour premiere of Fox's "24: Live Another Day" begins at 8 p.m. on May 5.