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Timely '24' is a comedy of terrors

"24," which begins Season 6 on Sunday night at 8 , is electrifying, and completely silly. It's a show that walks -- no, sprints -- the line between grim suspense and the Keystone Kops . As Jack Bauer wards off apocalypse after apocalypse, the action is as lean-forward-in-your-chair riveting as it is ridiculous, as much a contemporary-anxiety nightmare as a cliff-hanging comic book.

In other words, "24" perfectly captures the mood of America, so poised between global eruption and political farce. Whatever you think of Fox's terrorism serial, which returns on Channel 25, it is sure to go down in the pop-culture history books as the emblematic show of its time. "24" is a by-any-means-necessary, Bush-era fantasia that celebrates American persistence while turning that persistence into a rabbit chase. Jack may bag a terrorist mastermind, but he or she is always fronting for another mastermind, and so on ad infinitum. Pure evil is always just out of reach on "24" -- hiding in a cave, say -- and destined to reappear as the next villain-of-the-week.

What makes "24" fly is that its makers have become expert at the TV thrill ride. The new season begins, as all new seasons of "24" begin, with four wild, addictive hours. In keeping with tradition, Fox's programmers have boldly scheduled the two opening hours on Sunday , then two more on Monday night at 8 , aware that, while the season may proceed to wander and vamp, the start of Jack's day will certainly grab and hold viewers. To use a punctuation metaphor, the season may become dashes and parentheses by Episode 14, but it begins as a full row of exclamation points.

The excitement is partly stylistic. Each hour of "24" leaps among many plot strands, each of which builds and crescendoes repeatedly. And viewers don't need to work to keep things straight; the characters state and re-state what's going on, so we can just let go and take the ride. This season , a spate of terrorist attacks in the United States will put Jack back in action. Without any confusion, we follow his story; we follow the new President Palmer , Wayne (DB Woodside ), and his chief of staff Thomas Lennox (Peter MacNicol ); we follow bad guy Fayed (Adoni Maropis ) and his goons; we follow Chloe (Mary Lynn Rajskub ) and the CTU infighting; and we follow a suburban family taken hostage.

But the bigger rush on "24" is the way it stun-guns viewers with the issues of the moment. All the running and shooting and cell phoning is in service of real hot-button themes. This season, amid domestic attacks, racial profiling is running rampant. MacNicol's Lennox has no patience for civil liberties when it comes to rounding up terrorists; he faces off with Sandra Palmer (Regina King ), the president's sister, a lawyer who is romantically involved with a Muslim.

Along with constitutional rights, the show dives into questions of detention camps, torture, vigilantism, working with terrorists, and suicide bombing. It's button-pushing at its most provocative. Even the opening shots of Jack fresh from 20 months in a Chinese prison have controversial echoes, as they sample the images of a bearded and bedraggled Saddam Hussein just after his capture. Also Sunday night, we see Jack torturing a guy while a huge American flag hangs behind them. That'll get your heart going.

But, much as I am compelled to watch "24," and admire its craft, I find that I can't take it seriously. Next to Showtime's "Sleeper Cell" and its dark, dimensional portraits of terrorists, "24" is a caffeinated cartoon. This season, Jack does undergo moments of doubt, the psychological residue from his imprisonment. But, in combination with Kiefer Sutherland's monochromatic performance, he is still something of a savior-bot, barking his commands and outsmarting bad guys like a video-game rendition of himself. In one scene Sunday (small spoiler alert), Jack literally takes a bite out of the jugular of his captor. Human blood dripping from Jack's mouth! Blimey! Forget about Jack's steel bladder; what about his breath?

Jack has his usual tele-relationship with Chloe, who just keeps getting campier. This season, Chloe has been sexed up, and her ex-husband Morris (Carlo Rota ) calls her a "hottie"; but still, she's Chloe and her come-hither expressions kind of look like sneers. As Jack races after villains, who morph from Chinese to Muslim to Russian and back around again, Chloe is like a little girl playing switchboard. It's daffy, as she patches the president in and out and uses satellite footage to zoom in on a pimple on the head of an ant.

Jack also stays in close touch with CTU boss Bill Buchanan (James Morrison ), who, I'm sorry, is just a little too Tim Gunn (from "Project Runway" ) to convince. I'm still waiting for him to instruct the CTU agents to "Make it work, people." For all its pulse-pounding intensity, "24" teeters awfully close to that kind of absurdity. Next thing you know, like his "Ally McBeal" character, MacNicol's nose will start whistling the national anthem.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at For more on TV, visit