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Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Early look: '24' Day 8

Club CTU The first four hours of Fox's "24" are a welcome return to form. The veteran drama, which shifts to New York City this season, has just enough tweaks on the show's familiar "conspiracy-complication-minor resolution-deeper conspiracy-bigger complication..." format to feel fresh despite its well-worn mechanics.
I mocked Freddie Prinze Jr. when THR first reported he was cast this season, thinking he might be a distracting drag on the ticket like Janeane Garofalo last year. But the actor is likable here and fits the "24" universe better than you'd expect. "Battlestar" vet Katee Sackhoff seems frustrated -- she's great when she's playing moments of total strength or total vulnerability (and best at playing both at the same time). Reacting to computers and phone calls at CTU doesn't really suit her, she thrives in more active roles. Given that this is "24," she'll probably get her turn at bat.
The best addition is Anil Kapoor, best known stateside for his role as the "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" host in "Slumdog Millionaire." He plays an idealized version a Middle East leader with an Elvis-quality pompadour on the verge of signing a historic peace agreement. It's a painfully standard "24" part, yet he owns each scene he's in. I hope producers pair him with Bauer at some point, the two scenery chewing actors going head to head, Kapoor barking his line from "Slumdog": "It's my f--king show." 
What might get the most comments from fans is the new CTU, which has been given an extreme makeover for the New York edition. Glass walls, projected images, sliding doors, employees wearing earpieces, and an underground valet entrance. It's like some hipster nightclub in a boutique Soho hotel, complete with Sackhoff in a black cocktail dress. When introduced to a white-on-white interrogation room, you expect the suspect to receive overpriced bottle service instead of harsh questions. It's all very watchable and totally ludicrous, but you can tell the producers are proud of the set design the way the camera lovingly introduces each room at Club CTU. 
Bauer As always, the biggest trick with "24" is presenting the familiar plotting and twists for an audience that's been here many times before. Though this season's assassination storyline is familiar, the execution is strong and grounded in realism juuuust enough -- at least, so far.
Remember: The widely bashed sixth season had one of the best opening four hours in the show's history (with a traumatized Bauer returning from Chinese prison and a nuclear weapon blowing up Santa Clarita), then squandered a potentially game-changing head start by reverting to recycled ideas and lazy writing. Producers say the first four hours are the most crucial of each season. Let's hope they gave equal attention to the rest of Bauer's day.