I know I've said this before, but some things can stand repetition: "24" is the amnesiac's favorite television show. We're starting Day Eight on Sunday (Jan. 17) night and the series shows no sign of varying its formula beyond the occasional new location, the occasional new uber-ethnic baddie, the occasional new inept CTU boss and the occasional new POTUS.

The structure remains unchanged. The ethos remains unchanged. Kiefer Sutherland's unflagging commitment to the emotional truth of Jack Bauer remains unchanged. The series has five or six standard twists that get rotated every season, along with five or six standard cliffhangers rotated to end every episode. If you can watch the show and forget that you've ever seen these things before, you can always find enjoyment in a new episode or a new season of "24" and the show's most passionate fans have become experts at that sort of self-imposed forgetfulness.

It helps that "24" spun off a drinking game in its early seasons and that drinking game has seemingly become integrated into the narrative. Drink whenever certain things happen on "24" and then drink some more to forget that everything happening on "24" you've seen before. It's a great formula. Simulated originality through advanced intoxication.

One thing the "24" writers have never failed at before is starting a season off with a bang. If you look at reviews of every new season, you'd think "24" was always coming off of its worst season ever, because critics are always so excited to have it back. And normally you can count on the "24" team to nuke Valencia or kill a President, on Jack Bauer to arrive from China with a bushy beard or to return from the dead with vengeance on his mind. "24" may not know how to finesse the middle of each season and the writers often aren't exactly sure of how to end things, but they always can get the ball rolling.

Alas, this isn't the case with Sunday (Jan. 17) and Monday (Jan. 18) nights' four-hour premiere. Despite transplanting the show to New York City and overhauling the supporting cast, the creative exhaustion on "24" is evident. Sunday's hours aren't so bad (neither are they gripping), but the first hour on Monday is among the show's worst hours and the second Monday episode isn't much better. Even devoted fans may need to do a lot of forgetting (and a lot of drinking?) before Episode Five.

[Full review after the break... Some spoilers, but nothing major...]

Day Eight of "24" picks up a confusing amount of time after the events in Washington last season.

Guess what? Jack Bauer's alive. I guess that means the Magical Stem Cell Therapy worked, so Jack has Kim (Elisha Cuthbert) to thank. As the season begins, he's repaying his daughter by babysitting his granddaughter Teri, who has had enough time to grown from an infant to an adorable tot, the sort of child one can only fear has "Kidnap Me" tattooed across her forehead in the eyes of the "24" producers (this hasn't happened yet and it's a turn for the worse I'd like to hope even "24" can avoid). Jack looks older and more weary than we've ever seen him before, but he also looks happy, as he watches TV with his granddaughter. He's ready to pack it up and move back to Los Angeles, where he'll take a casual job in private security and never again have another day in which he works for 24 hours straight without going to the bathroom or hydrating.

That serenity lasts for five minutes, before a former Jack associate (Benito Martinez of "The Shield," picking up a quick paycheck) shows up at his door claiming to know about a plot to assassinate Omar Hassan (Anil Kapoor), president of the Islamic Republic of Genericistan (or something), in town to sign a potentially historic disarmament treaty with President Taylor (Cherry Jones). In no time, Grandpa Jack is gone and Eye-Bulging "TELL ME WHO THE HITTER IS?!?" Jack is back.

To prevent the attack, Jack has to liaise with CTU's New York office, a designer's dream, full of arches and towering overhead fans and glass doors. As ever, employment standards at CTU are dismal and Mykelti Williamson's Brian Hastings may be the most inept department head to date. While Chloe (Mary Lynn Rajskub) is working for New York CTU, she takes a backseat to Dana Walsh (Katee Sackhoff), a computer expert whose broad, exposed shoulders suggest she'll also be physically intimidating if ("when," really) the show lets her out in the field. Running field ops out of the NYC office is Cole Ortiz, who would be boring and forgettable as a character if he weren't played by Freddie Prinze Jr. (or, perhaps, *is* boring and forgettable *because* he's played by Freddie Prinze Jr.).

In no time, "24" is off to the races with all of the usual complications.

Jack tries convincing people to listen to him. They don't. He's right. They apologize. Then they fail to listen to him again.

Jack finds people with necessarily information. They start to tell him things. Boom. Jack finds another people with necessary information. Boom.

And do circumstances force Jack Bauer to contemplate going rogue? Oh, most definitely.

Watching these opening episodes, you can pretty easily guess which movies the writers were watching when breaking stories. They're lifting from "16 Blocks" here, from "Eastern Promises" there and from "The Interpreter" in other places. The homages (thefts) are more visible because they're the only parts of the early episodes that don't feel like things "24" has done dozens of times previously.

Usually, "24" premieres contain a moment or two that make you gasp, but it's almost like the writers aren't trying to be surprising in the opening episodes. Two of the first four episodes end with a cliffhanger making you fear that the same character might be dead (or in danger), even though nobody's going to be fooled. The season's first mole is is disappointingly predictable and outed too fast. The show is sleepwalking. Sticking the Brooklyn Bridge in the back of a shot isn't going to fool this writer into believing anything here is new. And that's before the third episode that grinds to a halt with a poorly considered subplot involving a veteran of "The Wire," the latest in a long string of CTU employees potentially being blackmailed by a person from their past and the return of a familiar character with a new piece of backstory that invalidates everything in the character's previous arc.

Of this season's new additions, Sackhoff and Kapoor are are the most memorable, but that's only because both co-stars are so charismatic that they can't be hampered by nothing roles. Prinze, though, hardly makes an impression.

The start of the "24" season isn't a complete disaster. Because of Jack Bauer's initial contentment, Sutherland gets to play a couple different emotional shades, while also playing all of the familiar notes. [Though why is Jack constantly threatening to tattle to President Taylor if people don't listen to him? The Jack Bauer I know isn't a snitch.] There's some great, hammy guest work from Doug Hutchinson. Chloe gets to be spectacularly uncomfortable, but also to show a spine. The change to New York at least changes up the geography. And even though the returning character gets his-or-her backstory screwed up, they still come back with a satisfying level of badassery.

But there's no hook to the season, at least not a big enough hook, established early enough. An assassination attempt on a foreign leader just isn't enough anymore. A few small explosions can't measure up. I placed "24" in the not-at-all-coincidental position at No. 24 on my list of TV's Best of the Aughts, but Day Eight is not off to a promising start.

 

"24" premieres on Sunday, Jan. 17 and Monday, Jan. 18 on FOX.