Tuesday, January 6, 2009

"24" Returns: Tony! Tony! Tony!

The action series "24" succeeds at a lot of things. It's really good at making us terrified of the world we live in. It's really good at find new ways for superspy Jack Bauer to torture evildoers (and suspected evildoers). And it's really good at giving us at least one moment each season (yes, even the lackluster sixth season) that makes us shriek in terror and dismay.
But there is one thing it kind of stinks at: providing realistic relationships for Jack (Kiefer Sutherland). Seriously -- his wife, Teri, was more interesting dead than alive. His eventual girlfriend Audrey had a little more depth, but even she basically existed to shoot troubled looks at Jack as he executed his crime-fighting mayhem.
And, as much as Jack keeps telling us he loves his daughter Kim, we're just not buying it. I'm sure that, by this point, Jack is probably secretly glad that Kim and the constant cloud of trouble that follows her have shut him out of their lives.
But the show has provided Jack with one believable, emotionally fraught relationship. That's the bond between him and his former co-worker Tony Almeida (Carlos Bernard).
Yes, in the beginning, the two weren't buddies, but a bond developed over time (perhaps spurred by their mutual deception by mercenary vixen Nina Meyers). They eventually became each others' go-to guy. When Jack and Audrey were trapped in that warehouse in season four, who did Jack call? Tony. When Jack needed to fake his death, who did he call? Tony. Also Chloe. And Michelle. And David Palmer.
But mostly Tony.
Anyway, that's why so many fans were upset in season five when Tony seemingly died in Jack's arms. Yes, "24" has killed off lots of characters before and since, but none quite so important to the show.
Without Tony, Jack had no real foil. Sure, he had Chloe and Bill, but there wasn't the same chemistry, the same connection.
So, was the absence of Tony responsible for the crappiness of season six? Eh, probably not. But it didn't help.
That's why last year, "24" fans were overjoyed (if a bit confused) to learn that the show was bringing back Tony. We were all for the resurrection of Almeida, but how would they bring him back from the dead?
Well, we never got to find out. The accursed writers' strike caused the show's production to shut down, and no new episodes aired last year.
So we waited, somewhat patiently, to see what was up with the whole Tony thing. We got no clue during the recent "24" movie, which centered only on Jack and a few new characters. We tried to remain patient, frantically wanting to know what the deal was with Tony.
Well, now the wait is over.
"24" returns next week, with two two-hour episodes on Sunday and Monday. And, much to my relief, Tony pops up quickly. Yay!
When the season opens, Jack is getting grilled by a senate committee about his frequent use of torture. He's the middle of justifying all the neck punching, drugging, electric-shocking and decapitation he's done over the years when FBI agent Renee Walker (Annie Wersching) bursts into the proceedings, claiming to desperately need Jack's help.
She sweeps him away from the Senate hearings and informs him that a group of terrorists (or something) has been stealing information that could compromise American security (or something).
Well, Jack wonders, how can I help you?
One of the terrorists is someone you know, Walker says. She then shows Jack a picture of Tony.
No, that's not a spoiler. Anyone who's seen ads for this season knows that Tony comes back as a bad guy. But how? And why? It's a while before we learn. Instead, we get a lot of silliness at the FBI, where Janeane Garofalo and Rhys Coiro aim to become "24's" newest comedy team, trading quips and insults. Yeesh. There's also some dull, but plot-forwarding, nonsense involving new President Allison Taylor (Cherry Jones) and her attempts to declare war on evil factions in the fictional African nation of Sangala.
But the show doesn't really pick up until the end of hour two, when Jack and Tony are finally reunited. The look in Jack's eyes when he sees what Tony has become is devastating and more emotionally compelling than anything we saw on "24's" sixth season (yes, I remember Curtis dying. And I wasn't that moved).
Once the two men are brought together, the show takes off, as Jack tries to use to their past relationship to help save the world. Other than that, I won't elaborate because, of course, there are twists and turns I'd rather not spoil.
But I will reveal that we see Bill Buchanan (James Morrison) by hour three, and he's wearing a spiffy black turtleneck. We also see Chloe (Mary Lynn Raksjub) and she, once again, gets the best line.
So far, I have high hopes for the new season of "24." Yes, I know it's disappointed us before, but maybe this season will be different. Maybe the return of Tony will bring the show back to its high-energy self. Let's hope so.
The four-hour season premiere of "24" starts Sunday, with a two-hour episode, airing from 8 to 10 p.m. The second half of the premiere airs 8 to 10 p.m. Monday. The show airs on Fox.

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