’24’ heads in new direction this season

Joe Cramer

Throughout its six seasons on TV, “24” has dominated pop culture. Thanks to its revolutionary “real-time” storytelling device, its edgy and provocative anti-hero and its intricate and culturally relevant plots, it has become a critical and popular phenomenon, earning several Emmys and some of FOX’s highest ratings. Given all of the accolades this show has reaped, it has surprisingly been one of the most wildly inconsistent shows on TV.

When “24” is at its best, it is very, very good. Past seasons, especially Seasons 1, 2 and 5, have been among the most suspenseful and utterly thrilling runs of any TV series.

Yet when “24” falters, it flames out in a cacophonous mess of absurdity and shameless shock value.

After taking a season off because of last year’s writers’ strike, “24” is set to return this January. First, however, the producers are treating us to a special movie event, “24: Redemption.”

Picking up with Jack (Keifer Sutherland) a year after Season 6, “Redemption” marks a fresh start for the series, with a slate-clearing plot and a renewed focus on character development.

The first sign of the new season’s potential is the wise decision to move away from the formulaic plots that have become a standard for the show.

Rather than follow another tired and clichéd Middle Eastern terrorist plot, the special finds Jack, once again on the run from his demons, unwittingly embroiled in a civil war in the fictional African country of Sengala.

Having abandoned his country and his job after the close of last season, Jack has been traveling the world for a year, attempting to evade both the personal guilt and political punishment he has endured as a result of his highly brutal and unsanctioned actions.

According to Sutherland, Jack has been traveling to places where he used to serve as a soldier and reconnecting with old friends, trying to find a sense of purpose that he has lost in his recent years with the U.S. Government’s Counter Terrorist Unit.

As “Redemption” begins, Jack is staying at a school in Sengala run by his old friend and former soldier, Carl Benton (Robert Carlyle). It is here that we are exposed to a more tender side of the damaged soldier, primarily through his friendships with Carl and a young boy at the school.

However, it is soon revealed that not all is as Jack thinks it is. Unbeknownst to him, a colonel is planning a rebellion and is kidnapping children to fight in his planned coup. It is only inevitable that before long, they attack the school and force Jack into action again.

From here, the special is filled with wall-to-wall action and political intrigue. We are also introduced to the man who is sure to become the upcoming season’s main villain, Jonas Hodges (eerily played by film veteran Jon Voight).

Underscoring all of this is the historical induction of the country’s first female president, Allison Taylor (Cherry Jones). From the looks of things, she is not going to have an easier time in office than any of her predecessors (three of whom were assassinated), as before she even takes her oath of office, she becomes involved in the mounting crisis in Sengala.

While the plot hits the standard notes of vast government conspiracies, covert agencies and hidden agendas, the radical change of setting makes “Redemption” feel fresh and new.

The transition to war-torn Africa is assisted competently by some of the most epic and thrilling action sequences to ever appear on TV. They are visceral, brutal and, in another welcome change for the show, realistic.

Of course, the most interesting part of the special is Jack. While he maintains the skill and efficiency that defines Jack as a soldier, Sutherland reveals a new dimension of personal attachment to the character, as is revealed through his bonds with the children.

Sutherland’s frantic performance conveys the highly personal stake Jack has in this mission: By protecting the children, he is fighting for his very soul.

Jack is portrayed here not as the emotionless killing machine he has been in the past few seasons, but as a deeply tortured man who is trying to right the numerous wrongs of his life. While the title “Redemption” applies literally to the shocking ending of this special, it also applies to the series itself. With this intense and refreshing renewal of the “24” saga, the flaws and failings of previous seasons have indeed been redeemed. Keeping the essential identity of the show intact, the writers have also managed to move it in a brave new direction that, if this prequel is any indication, will pay off in spades in the coming season.