Filling the screen with images reminiscent of "Hotel Rwanda" and "Blood Diamond" and an even grimmer and sick-at-heart Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland), "24" prepares to retake its position on television with "Redemption," a two-hour prequel to Season 7.
A victim of the writers strike, the show that tapped into America's post-9/11 paranoia and turned baby-faced Sutherland into the world's most unlikely emo-action hero has been gone for nearly 18 months, or several million episodes in "24's" infamous real-time format. Rest assured, no one has been idle. (Sutherland kept the show in the headlines by getting arrested, convicted and actually serving time for drunk driving, though this was probably not the kind of talking point Fox was looking for.) The forced hiatus was, after all, only one of "24's" problems. As Season 6 pinballed to a close in spring 2007, even die-hard fans were complaining about repetitive story lines and worn-out love triangles. (Honestly, is there nothing worse than a worn-out love triangle?)
"Redemption," a bridge to next season, which begins Jan. 11, nukes those criticisms. With a narrative that is ambitious and gut-wrenching even by "24" standards, Jack finds himself in Sangala, Africa, which is on the verge of a military coup of the sort now only too recognizable. (Why he could not have fled to Paris is a question only Jack and his writers can answer.) There is a psychotic general in a requisite psychotic-general beret, a brutal rebel army toting machine guns and machetes and a group of now agonizingly iconic child soldiers: boys kidnapped and psychologically bludgeoned to make them capable of slaughtering "the cockroaches."
The world has changed in many ways since the end of Season 6, and executive producer Howard Gordon seems to have taken to heart the criticism the U.S. government has received over the use of torture, not to mention the country's moral cynicism. This doesn't mean there are no scenes of torture. Of course there are. It's "24." It's just not the Americans who are committing it.
The Counter Terrorist Unit has, in fact, been disbanded and is currently under investigation. While his perpetual emotional turmoil does not seem to include regret over using excessive force, Jack has fled in an effort to evade a subpoena. It catches up with him, in mythical Sangala, where he is doing quasi-missionary work with his old special ops buddy Carl (Robert Carlyle), who runs a school for boys.
All you have to do is take one look at Carl's group of winsome students to know what is going to happen next: The soldiers will come for them and only Jack can prevent their being dragged into military slavery.
Meanwhile -- and haven't you missed all those split-screen meanwhiles? -- back in the States, a senator so vile he is played by Jon Voight is funding the rebels. When the young, drug-addicted lackey who's been moving the money realizes what's going on, he turns to his best friend, who happens to be the son of Allison Taylor (Cherry Jones), the first woman president-elect, moments away from inauguration.
Outgoing president (boooo, hissss) Noah Daniels (Powers Boothe), who apparently served out the term he began in Season 6, has been informed of the impending coup; but rather than offer military support, he is closing the embassy and evacuating any Americans. For Reasons Of His Own. Which means two things: Taylor, who seems to embody our nation's shift toward a no-nonsense optimism, has her work cut out for her and, more important, Jack and Carl have only an hour to get the kids through rebel-controlled territory to the U.S. Embassy, the last place Jack wants to be.
There's nothing like a group of round-faced young boys running for their lives through field and forest to instantly ratchet up a story's emotional level. The seventh season may take place back in the States, but the prequel firmly establishes not only what is at stake here -- the desperate lives of innocent men, women and children -- but also the moral responsibility the United States continues to have in the world.
Still, for all its political ambitions, "24" remains the story of one man's journey, and Sutherland shrugs himself back into the role as if it were a well-worn flak jacket.
With his eyes full of anguish, soft-spoken ways and chin stubble gone golden under the African sun, Bauer has never looked so savior-like. (At one point he is tortured with his arms outstretched, as if on a cross, which may have been a bit over-the-top.) He is still more than capable of taking out an entire platoon with a few sticks of dynamite and a handgun, but clearly Jack Bauer walks the Earth to take on the world's sins, to thwart what he can, avenge what he cannot and suffer because he must.
When: 8 p.m. Sunday
Rating: Not rated