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'24' works overtime to open season

If ''24" operates in ''real time," then I guess we're all living in some kind of ''fake time," where days if not months usually pass between global terror scenarios. Fortunately, in fake time we also get to take a few minutes here and there to sleep, charge our cellphones, and eat the occasional cheese doodle.

The Fox suspense series, which begins its fifth season tomorrow night at 8 on Channel 25, is a very unreal -- but very absorbing -- rush of nightmares. It's a TV spill of every American fear in the post-9/11 world, a greatest hits of apocalyptic worry, from bombs in airports to chemical warfare. It's condensed dread.

And therefore, ''24" is also condensed solace, as Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) does anything and everything to save us from doomsday. With the clock ticking in the background, we root for Jack and forgive him his trespasses -- not to mention his shootings, wiretappings, and beheadings. Many of us who might condemn the idea of his cowboy vigilantism still can't resist the entertainment value of his superheroism each week, what with him being fictional and all. And not only does Jack keep governments from collapsing and cities from imploding, but he's also polite to women.

This season, which opens with two-hour episodes both tomorrow and Monday nights, Jack returns from pretending to be dead when violent crimes rock the nation between 7 and 8 a.m. As fans know from previous seasons, he quickly finds himself in the center of a potential international disaster -- one that turns out to be only one of many sub-disasters leading up to a mega-disaster at the end of the season. By May sweeps, we'll finally glimpse the plot's big kahuna.

Until his return to LA, Jack was living in Mojave, Calif., with a new girlfriend, Diane (Connie Britton, who looks a bit like Debra Messing), and her 15-year-old son, Derek (Brady Corbet). Naturally, they get drawn into the suspense, as do the Nixon-like President Logan (Gregory Itzin) and his fragile wife, Martha (Jean Smart). If the former President Palmer's wife was a Lady Macbeth, Martha is an Ophelia, always about to crumble into self-destruction. She's paranoid -- or is she really the only sane one in the White House?

The new actors and characters this season are a plus, particularly Smart as the shaky First Lady. ''24" is a formulaic series that needs a constant influx of new faces and new problems to stay interesting. But it's always nice to see a few returning faces, too, even when they're scowling. Yes, folks, Chloe O'Brian (Mary Lynn Rajskub) is back as Jack's computer whiz on the inside of CTU. And so are Edgar Stiles (Louis Lombardi), with his lovable chin dimple, and Tony Almeida (Carlos Bernard), his soul patch still in its trusty spot under his lower lip.

By the end of the violence-packed season, of course, the cast lineup will look different. And the plot, too, will have taken so many turns your head may start to throb with confusion and impatience. Even last year's arc, arguably the show's most cohesive so far, deteriorated into redundancy and irrelevancy by the final weeks. But until frustration sets in, and until the inevitable return of Elisha Cuthbert as Jack's irritating daughter, Kim, ''24" is still an addictive amusement park ride of a show.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at

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