Jack Bauer the terrorist slayer — get real, will ya? 

It doesn’t take a national security expert to know that hands-free phone calling makes it easier to coordinate special ops. But no one appears to have told that to Jack Bauer and the other Counter Terrorist Unit agents on the hit FOX series "24" who rarely use telephone headsets while driving.

You’d think that 20 months in a Chinese prison — from which Jack emerges at the beginning of the new season, only to find numerous U.S. cities under attack — would have left him ample time to meditate on more effective phone usage. Apparently not. Which is all to say, sometimes "24" is just too ludicrous to believe.

Maybe that’s not such a bad thing, since each season of the show dramatizes a terrorist attack that unfolds over the course of 24 hours — until now, always on Los Angeles, poor Los Angeles — and you want to watch it with more distance than you would watch news about a real attack.

Phones are just the tip of the unbelievable iceberg. Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) can often get wherever he’s going in L.A. in about 10 minutes, with minimal traffic. Maybe I’m misinformed, but I thought cars and traffic were kind of a big thing there.

For being so well-trained, CTU staff seem to be lacking in common sense. In season two, Jack Bauer’s daughter and underling, Kim, decides that the critical hours before a biological weapons attack would be the perfect time to have a heart-to-heart with her dad about the co-worker she’s dating. Further complicating matters is Chloe, the communications specialist who finds time in her busy day to have a baby sitter swing by with an infant and occupy the office with an "Are you my mommy?" drama. Such goofs prompt the boss to say, with the mildest tone of approbation, "Let’s tryto ease up on the mistakes for the rest of the night, as there are millions of lives depending on this."

Fortunately for those millions, CTU is able to organize complex operations in the time it would normally take to tie your shoe. In under an hour, they set up a video-monitoring system at the workplace of a suspected terrorist’s daughter, drug her and replace her with Kim in costume. CTU agents recover from traumatic wounds at a speed you’d only see otherwise on "Star Trek." Jack Bauer can go full tilt for 24 hours without eating, drinking, using the bathroom, or yawning, much less sleeping — unless you consider the "nap" he took when terrorists tortured him until his heart stopped. After a defibrillator treatment, he was back to climbing drainpipes in hot pursuit of suspects. Such high-pitched happenings make for good drama, but still, the more that "24" asks us to suspend disbelief, the harder it is to keep us in suspense.

Details aside, there’s the really incredible stuff. In season one, terrorists bring down a planeload of people so that an assassin can assume the identity of one of its passengers, a photographer en route to document presidential candidate David Palmer, whom they want to kill; wouldn’t it just have been easier to shoot the guy? Palmer is elected, and in the next season, after one terrorist attack, his vice president and cabinet rush to override him and launch a counter attack against a possibly innocent country.

If that weren’t ridiculous enough, we see that the aggressors are controlled by a conspiracy of oil interests. To fight them, Palmer relies almost exclusively on the counsel of one person, whose main political experience is being his younger brother. Evidently, that was enough to propel the junior Palmer into the presidency, a position he occupies in the current season.

Once you finish an episode, you realize maybe it isn’t so crazy after all. Preposterous as the specifics of "24" may be, the bigger questions of terror, the use of torture, political dynasties, and power all feel uncomfortably plausible.

Thankfully, the new season strains credulity so much that we can enjoy the show: it reportedly takes place partly in New York. Honestly — a terrorist attack in New York? How unbelievable is that?

Watch Jack Bauer kill a terrorist vampire-style on the first "24" episode of season 6 (warning — graphic violence):

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Staff Report

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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