A bad day for Jack Bauer is a good thing for Kiefer Sutherland.
Keeping its now-traditional pattern, the FOX suspense series "24" has waited until the new year to launch its sixth season. On the added strength of its five recent Emmy wins -- including honors for outstanding drama series and lead actor Sutherland -- and current Golden Globe Award nominations, "24" returns as it did last year, with consecutive nights of two-hour offerings Sunday and Monday, Jan. 14 and 15.
Counterterrorism operative Bauer (Sutherland) is in dire straits as his saga resumes, having been the much-tortured captive of retribution-seeking Chinese agents for nearly two years. (A prequel to the new season, on Fox Home Entertainment's DVD set of the series' fifth year, also indicates how rough it's been for him.)
Don't expect Bauer to remain a prisoner much longer, though. His agency, CTU, needs him when America is targeted for multiple terrorist attacks.
"'Indifference' isn't a word I ever would have used in describing Jack Bauer," the pleasant Sutherland reflects, "yet at the beginning of this year, the life has been beaten out of him so badly that he's literally a walking dead person. The great luxury is that once you start the season, you're locked into the time frame of this one 24-hour day, so the gap between last season and this one allows you to come at it from a very different place.
"The difference between season one and season two was huge as well," Sutherland notes. "([Jack] was mourning the death of his wife. Season four started off with his being his happiest, being in love again (with Audrey Raines, played by Kim Raver), then he went backward. Here, we've got him starting at his worst, and he'll hopefully move forward.
"This year is the most interesting one for me, because this is the farthest he will get to travel emotionally in the course of a day. I think the writers have realized the larger an arc we can create for him over a season, the better off we are."
Facing several crises at once is part of that. "That's another thing we learned," explains Sutherland, also a "24" executive producer. "We were focused on having one issue in the first couple of years, but the reality of terrorism is that there can be 40 incidences around the country. There's no one 'head' to it, and that's as potentially dangerous and devastating as any single attack could be.
"It puts people in a panic, and that's basically what happens at this stage of the series. The government is forced to do things it would not normally. It goes against its own policies, but again, this is in the context of a television show."
Last season, Gregory Itzin and Jean Smart earned praise -- and Emmy nominations -- as the duplicitous U.S. president and the suspicious first lady. They're back in another impressive "24" cast that also includes fellow returnees Mary Lynn Rajskub (as Bauer's quirky CTU colleague Chloe), James Morrison, DB Woodside and Jayne Atkinson.
Among the many notable newcomers are James Cromwell (as Bauer's estranged father), Powers Boothe, Chad Lowe, Rick Schroder ("NYPD Blue"), Peter MacNicol ("Ally McBeal"), Regina King, Harry Lennix ("Commander In Chief") and Alexander Siddig ("Syriana").
"We've had just amazing actors," Sutherland enthuses. "I tend to be on my own a bit this year, but we've been incredibly fortunate with the actors who have wanted to have a run with us. What's frustrating is that sometimes, you'll hear that someone wants to come in and do something, but we don't write the show like that. It is what it is, so there have been some missed opportunities, but not nearly as many as the opportunities we've been able to take advantage of."
Several months after he received his "24" Emmy, the win is still a thrill for Sutherland. "The beginning for us was when Jon Cassar, our lead director, won. This is what he's been doing for six years, and he's worked so hard, that made everybody's night right there. At that point, anything else was a bonus.
"Then, to hear your own name called out -- no matter how well you think you're going to do with the speech, it all seems to fly out of your head in that short walk from your seat to the stage. You're really nervous because you're looking at all these people you want to work with or deeply respect, but when I saw my father (veteran actor Donald Sutherland), that calmed me right down. Then the show won, so it was an unbelievable night."
Sutherland is grateful to the devotees who have kept "24" ticking since its 2001 premiere, shortly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.
"We've had the most incredibly loyal fan base," he says. "It wasn't the biggest at first, but man, they were loyal. They're the reason we've gotten to try as much stuff as we have, and we've relied very heavily on that. We might chat with them on the Internet at any given moment, and the comments they've put up on the boards have been incredibly insightful. We get a sense of what's working and what isn't."
A "24" theatrical movie is in the works, but those involved want to ensure it can meet expectations before the cameras roll. "The audience has treated the show with such respect, we're certainly not going to betray them by just throwing something out there," Sutherland says. "It has to be very special, and we're working very hard to try to get that. Whether it's during the hiatus this year or next year, we're eventually going to do it, but it has to have the quality of the show while still being different."
With filming completed on more than half of the sixth year's "24" episodes, the focus now remains on keeping the weekly product solid.
"Every year when we start up, there's this fear about what we're going to bring that will be new, that will matter," Sutherland says. "This year was no different, but having to move forward at such a rapid acceleration with the character (Bauer) has really proved to be very effective, at least for us. It's obviously up to the audience to decide, but we're cautiously optimistic about this season. We're very excited about it, and we just can't wait to show it to people."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times