DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is Fresh Air. I'm Dave Davies filling in for Terry Gross. The serialized Fox drama series "24," starring Kiefer Sutherland as terrorist-fighting federal agent Jack Bauer, hasn't been on TV since May of 2007. The next season of the series won't begin until January of next year. In between, Fox is presenting a special self-contained two-hour "24" movie this Sunday. Our TV critic David Bianculli has this review.
DAVID BIANCULLI: 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 in the 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 mid-season 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 - someone shows up at the camp looking for Jack. The stranger is played by Gil Bellows from "Ally McBeal," and Jack's friend who runs the boys' camp and introduces the stranger to Jack is played by Robert Carlyle from "The Full Monty."
(Soundbite of TV movie "24: Redemption")
Mr. ROBERT CARLYLE: (As Carl Benton) Jack, this is Frank Tramell. He's the ambassador's chief political officer.
Mr. KIEFER SUTHERLAND: (As Jack Bauer) I know who he is.
Mr. CARLYLE: (As Carl Benton) He says he left some messages for you to come see him at the embassy.
Mr. SUTHERLAND: (As Jack Bauer) I got his messages.
Mr. CARLYLE: (As Carl Benton) What's going on, Jack?
Mr. GIL BELLOWS: (As Frank Tramell) I'll tell you what's going on. Senate subcommittee has questions about the illegal detention and torture of certain prisoners in Mr. Bauer's custody. I have a subpoena requesting your appearance, and it's way past due.
(Soundbite of papers rustling)
Mr. BELLOWS: (As Frank Tramell) So, consider yourself served.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. SUTHERLAND: (As Jack Bauer) I told the boys I'd help them unload the truck. Excuse me.
Mr. BELLOWS: (As Frank Tramell) Failure to comply to a subpoena is a federal offense, Mr. Bauer. You are bound by law to respond.
Mr. SUTHERLAND: (As Jack Bauer) Then give them my response. They want me back in Washington, they can come and get me.
BIANCULLI: That's not the only problem 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 forced them to act as soldiers, or walk through minefields, or just be slaughtered later for the fun of it. Normally, when Jack Bauer is up against these sorts of problems, 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 stateside story set during Inauguration Day of a new president. No, not that new president - "24" had a black man 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." And 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.
DAVIES: David Bianculli is TV critic for tvworthwatching.com and teaches TV and film studies at Roan University. Coming up, the National Book Foundation honors publisher Barney Rosset for his battles with censorship. This is Fresh Air.