"I'm Jack Bauer, and this is the third-longest day of my life."
Fox's favorite hard-luck superagent is going to regret calling in sick as the drama "24" returns for a third season Tuesday. Fox again presents the season premiere commercial-free.
As before, each episode is an hour in a full day (albeit one mysteriously free of traffic jams and bathroom breaks), and Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) is called upon to save the nation from imminent disaster.
In season one, it was an attempted assassination of presidential candidate David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert). Season two had a terrorist nuclear bomb that precipitated a coup aimed at now-President Palmer. This time, it's a deadly pathogen, but that's only the tip of the iceberg.
It's been three years since last season's finale, which saw a physically spent Jack whisked off to the hospital after surviving torture, heart failure and a car wreck. Palmer was felled by a poisoned handshake from lovely assassin Mandy (Mia Kirshner).
Both lived, but it was Palmer who had the shakier prognosis. "We didn't know if he would live or die," executive producer Howard Gordon says. "We dug really deep to find an organic way to bring him back into the season, but it was a challenge."
With a year-plus gap between seasons one and two, and a three-year gap between two and three, Palmer now faces the ultimate presidential hurdle: reelection.
As for Bauer, last year's budding romance with Kate Warner (Sarah Wynter) apparently has flowered and faded. He's back at the Counter Terrorist Unit, with a new office and his own special-ops unit. He has a partner, Chase Edmunds (James Badge Dale), who idolizes him. But, Gordon says, Jack's all about the work this year.
"Jack is firmly entrenched in the opinion that you can't do this kind of work and have a personal relationship and sustain that," Gordon says. "That's one of the themes that we're running through this year, with Palmer and Jack and Kim -- love and work."
Speaking of Jack's wayward daughter, Kim (Elisha Cuthbert) -- the television embodiment of "The Perils of Pauline" -- she survived another season of kidnaps, escapes, murders and gunplay (Cuthbert still bears a scar from a cougar bite suffered during production). Her first-season love interest, Rick (Daniel Bess), presumably wound up in jail; her second-season beau, Miguel (Innis Casey), lost a leg helping Kim escape from police.
"She doesn't know that," Cuthbert says. "But he left, so there's a new boy. He's pretty impressive, but there's going to be some conflict there with Dad and boyfriend and me."
No longer the hapless victim, Kim has signed on to the CTU, working her way up from an entry-level position to a low rung on the ladder.
"We've just been assuming," Cuthbert says, "that she's taken a liking to what her father does. Over the past two years, she's gotten to know it quite well, losing her mother to it, firing a gun in the second season.
"We assume the last three years she's been in intense training and learning. She's in there working her butt off, trying to prove to everyone she can do it."
Also juggling the personal and professional is CTU operative Tony Almeida (Carlos Bernard), who, after covering for Jack Bauer for two seasons, has now taken over the CTU.
Kate O'Hare writes for Tribune Media Services.
The "24" season premiere airs at 9 p.m. Tuesday on Fox. It is rated TV14-V (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14, with an advisory for violence).
Cover photograph by Robert Voets.