Jack Bauer's Compressed, Two Hour 'Redemption'

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Asking viewers to wait more than 18 months between seasons of a TV show, even if it's their favorite TV show, is asking a lot. Maybe too much. The Sopranos, over on cable, got away with it, but few shows do. When the writers' strike crippled TV production last season, the shows that rushed back into production afterward, like the procedurals and comedies on CBS, recovered nicely in the ratings. The shows that decided to wait and reboot this fall, like ABC's Pushing Daisies, didn't.

For 24, which dramatizes its action in hourly doses of real-time excitement, the producers decided they couldn't present a partial season of shows — for one thing, they'd have to call it 12 or 9, which somehow doesn't sound as cool. So while working on the next season, which wouldn't be televised until the show's usual midseason launch in January, the 24 folks decided to present a sort of bonus installment.

Consider 24: Redemption, which premieres this weekend, a sequel to last year, and a prequel to next year. Jack, played by Kiefer Sutherland, is in Africa, hiding out from a bunch of people — including his own government — and working at a charity boys' school run by an old friend from Special Forces.

On this particular day — and I'm not giving anything away here, because it happens right at the start, a stranger shows up at the camp looking for Jack and causing problems.

That's not the only conflict Jack faces. The other problem — and again, this is established at the very, very start — is that an army of tribal mercenaries aims to kidnap the boys in the camp and force them to act as soldiers, or walk through mine fields, or just be slaughtered later just for the fun of it.

Normally, when Jack Bauer is up against these sorts of problems, and odds, it makes for a very bad day. But in this telemovie, it makes for a very compressed two hours.

And that's actually the weakness of this particular Jack Bauer adventure. Sure, there's all this excitement and conflict and action. There's even a state-side story set during Inauguration Day of a new president. No, not that new president — 24 had a black president in the White House long before it was fashionable.

But because of all this compression, the usual elements of 24 get squeezed next to one another like plot points in an outline. As in every season-long story, Jack will either torture or be tortured. As in every other 24 adventure, there are scheming villains, showdowns with government authority, and a noble sacrifice or two. Seen at this speed, though, it's like watching 24 on fast-forward. The familiar elements whiz by, and you check, check, check them off — but without lingering on them, few get to resonate.

The best exception is the character played by Robert Carlyle, who stands out as one of the most capable and memorable fighting partners Jack Bauer has ever had. Since we don't get to see any of the "CTU" regulars in this narrative, including Chloe, Carlyle's contribution is not only welcome. It's invaluable. And yes, despite all the speedy drama in this avoid-capture, save-the-kids adventure, there's a really strong payoff at the end.

The big reward, though, is the bigger payoff that comes after the end. The second this 24 telemovie is over, Fox presents a very lengthy teaser promo for the upcoming season of 24. Hold onto your seats, because that looks great.

We'll just have to wait. But, during this sorry TV season, we've been doing a lot of that anyway.

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