In the midnight hour

Jan 13, 2010 at 12:00 am

Every time television's favorite action figure appears ready to get out of CTU and its dizzying world of espionage, betrayal, torture and murder in the name of patriotism and blowing up big-ass stuff, they pull him back in. As the eighth season of Bauer's Hours, 24, dawns with a four-hour, two-night "event" at 9 p.m. Sunday and 8 p.m. Monday on FOX (Channel 2 in Detroit), his adorable moppet of a granddaughter snuggles into his chest and calls him Jack, because she says, "You don't look like a grandpa." Besides, who among us in their right mind would have the balls to call Jack Bauer "Gramps"?

He's emotionally resigned to fly to Los Angeles with his daughter, Kim (Elisha Cuthbert), and her toddler to begin blissful family life as consultant for a private security firm. But meanwhile, at the United Nations, U.S. President Allison Taylor (Emmy winner Cherry Jones) and debonair visiting President Omar Hassan (Slumdog Millionaire's Anil Kapoor) are preparing to sign a historic nuclear disarmament treaty that could trigger enduring peace in the Mideast, and someone wants Hassan assassinated before the deal is sealed. A wounded informant shows up at Jack's door — while he's packing to make the plane, wouldn't you know — demands Jack transport him to CTU headquarters so he can spill his beans about the hit, and we're off and running again.

Jack encounters treachery, the Russian mob, anti-aircraft missiles, assassins, bomb threats, geopolitics, old alliances, police brutality, former liaisons and dismemberment — and that's just in the first four tension-packed hours. 24 is the finest action series in television history, hands down. It's like Spanish peanuts for adrenalin junkies; you consume it in big handfuls, and you can't get enough. I began watching the screener at midnight, committed to viewing the first hour and finishing the next day. You guessed it: I was still up at 4 a.m., hanging on every plot twist and gasping for air. This season includes guest performances from Freddie Prinze Jr., Battlestar Galactica's Katee Sackhoff (the sexiest shoulders in prime time) and Mykelti Williamson as CTU's arrogant, insecure new boss, and Trenton's own delightfully evil-eyed Mary Lynn Rajskub returns as Chloe, Jack's computer-nerd ally on the inside. Setting the show in New York City this time gives it an extra bite.

Even though Sutherland's still going great guns — FOX counts on the one-two punch of 24 and American Idol to make its ratings year, and he doubles as the show's executive producer — Jack Bauer's snarling threat in Sunday's first hour, "You're lucky I'm retired," will come true for Sutherland someday. Eight years is a lifetime for a hit series, and he can't keep beating and getting beaten by terrorists forever. His distinctive features seem to get a little more weathered every winter. FOX needs to begin grooming a replacement hour of action, and that's exactly what we may be seeing with the premiere of Human Target, which hits its mark at 8 p.m. Sunday preceding 24's return.

Based on the DC Comics series and graphic novel of the same name, Human Target stars square-jawed, prototypic-hero-looking Mark Valley, whom you may remember from Boston Legal, as the appropriately named Christopher Chance, a one-man defense department for personal security and threat assessment. He's assisted back at the sparse home office by mountainous comic Chi McBride, who after stints on such shows as Pushing Daisies and Boston Public appears to have the benign administrator/sarcastic sidekick role down pat, and the fabled Jackie Earle Haley (a Jackie Earle Haley sighting! On TV, no less!) as his mysterious tech support.

Chance takes risks by hiring himself out to protect individuals in imminent danger, weaving into their organizations, determining who's trying to bump them off and, as he's fond of saying, "eliminating the threat." While it doesn't move at the same taut, frenetic pace as 24, there are bullets, bombs and fists a-plenty in Human Target, and Valley's tongue-in-cheek, devil-may-care delivery makes the wild ride uniquely enjoyable. Chance is the kind of hero who prepares to leap off a speeding train with a makeshift parachute, distressed damsel in his arms, and says, "C'mon, this will be fun." And it is.

It's hard to believe that guys won't flock to Sunday's Human Target premiere like bodybuilders to a Wrestlemania tryout, particularly with their emotions and testosterone all pumped up by the NFL playoffs. If this show is being set up as the dare apparent to 24, we could do much worse. It's no 24 — probably closer to an 18-1/2 — but it's got panache, wit and potential. One programming note: The two episodes I've seen featured Chance on a zooming train and a doomed plane; don't be surprised to see him affect a rescue in an automobile very soon.

Jim McFarlin is a media critic for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]