Thank you for the days

As the television networks roll out their winter fare over the next few weeks there will undoubtedly be 30 minutes or an hour of bliss appealing to every demographic out there. If you are fat, lonely, an aspiring singer, Satan’s spawn or a blind crime fighter, sidle on up to the boob tube, because the programming gods have crafted a show for every niche.

Fox’s "24," which starts its fourth season Sunday night at 9 p.m. stands as proof of this.

What other show could appeal so strongly to former counter-terrorist agents who, in a mere 72 hours, have single-handedly prevented a senator’s assassination, brought down a Serbian terrorist ring, saved the country from nuclear holocaust, rescued his or her own daughter from kidnappers and a wild cougar, infiltrated a Mexican drug cartel and secured a deadly virus that terrorists planned to unleash on the United States?

Such is the resume of "24" hero Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) and, I’m sure at least some of the show’s devotees.

In addition to this (I hope) tiny group, "24" has built a loyal audience by tapping into the adrenaline-based, on-demand culture spawned by 24-hour news and the internet. Real-time episodes drew in curious viewers the first season, but quality acting and creative (if over-the-top) writing kept them tuning in.

But as the novelty’s worn off over the last two years so has the writing. At one point in the second season the writers, apparently out of ideas, banished Jack’s daughter to the wilderness and a prolonged duel with a cougar, leaving viewers to wonder, "And this has what to do with the nuclear bomb that just exploded?"

Such confounding arcs disappeared by last season, but continuity problems and overused plot devices abounded. On the DVD release, one of the writers even apologized for an inconsistency by admitting they only had a "vague idea" where the plot was going.

Yet despite the inconsistencies and sometimes confounding logic "24" has consistently been one of the more entertaining hours on television. The guilty pleasure character arcs of the best soap operas, the action and pacing of the best shoot-em-up flicks and a grittier feel than most network programming combine for the addictive experience needed to keep viewers tuning in for the delayed payoff.

Day four starts off a year and a half after Jack’s last traumatic 24 hours. Apparently he has moved on from saving the world at CTU (Counter Terrorist Unit) to negotiating budgets for Secretary of Defense James Heller, played as a Donald Rumsfeld clone by William Devane.

Because things are never that simple in the world of 24, Jack is also sleeping with the secretary’s daughter, Audrey (Kim Raver), who happens to be her dad’s senior advisor and who happens to be married (though separated) and who happens to have not told her dad about the relationship.

Jack’s work brings him back to CTU, and sets up a confrontation with new CTU boss Erin Driscoll. She fired Jack for the heroin addiction he developed in order to prevent a viral holocaust last season and she and Jack are clearly not on the same page.

But a train bombing, a watch-list terrorist on U.S. soil and rumors of an internet takeover prove too irresistible for Jack to remain on the sidelines. Before you know it he’s breaking orders, beating up law enforcement and shooting suspects – and this is all in the first hour!

By the time tragedy strikes at the beginning of the second hour it’s apparent Jack’s days as a budget negotiator are over and the terrorists’ days are numbered.

The writers wisely cleared Jack’s path by removing all but one of the main characters from last year, thus saving the hours it would have taken to tie up the knitting bag of loose ends. This should give the show the chance to explore some new ground via the new faces at CTU and in the field. Will they? Doubtful, if the way the writers have replaced the previous seasons’ characters portrayed by black actors with identically predisposed "new" black characters is any indication.

Issues aside, "24" is still fun to watch for one reason – Sutherland’s portrayal of Jack Bauer. Whether you like the show for its style and writing or hate it for its stereotypes and violence, Sutherland’s Jack provides a fascinating prism to examine post-911 attitudes towards terrorism, law enforcement and leadership in general. Over the past three seasons, the show has used Jack to ask audiences how far they are willing to go to protect their safety and when and what is too far.