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And not an hour too soon, as 24 (finally) starts the clock again.

STANDING ON THE EDGE OF A CLIFF, gun in hand, Jack Bauer (played by Kiefer Sutherland) pondered his future as the final seconds of 24’s sixth season ticked away more than a year and a half ago. Fresh from helping his country avert yet another catastrophe and having just been forced to walk away from the woman he loved, our unflappable hero suddenly seemed, well, flappable. Had Jack finally been beaten? Of course not! But when 24’s long-awaited and much-delayed (due to the Hollywood writers’ strike) seventh season finally arrives on Fox this month, viewers will see Jack as they’ve never seen him before.

“Jack has taken on a much more existential existence,” contends executive producer Howard Gordon. “He is at a place that’s dark even by 24 standards.” That probably means season seven (day seven in 24 time) won’t find Jack leisurely tossing one back at the corner pub. As the day begins, he is in Washington, D.C., testifying before a Senate subcommittee on charges of illegal detention and torture. “He is subjected to this grand inquisition and is forced to defend himself,” Gordon explains. “The way Jack acquits himself is fairly heroic, if somewhat dark. He has a posture this year that is really intriguing.”

It won’t surprise longtime viewers to learn that Jack’s season-opening appearance before the Beltway heavyweights quickly becomes an afterthought. “Jack is pulled from the Senate investigation because as part of a threat that now is upon us, we learn that somebody Jack knows, Tony Almeida (Carlos Bernard), turns out to be alive,” Gordon says.

Tony alive? But didn’t he die back in season five? Gordon acknowledges that Tony’s back-from-the-dead return is “potentially absurd,” but he insists the payoff is more important than the plausibility. “Sometimes, it’s worth traveling a short distance of willing suspension of disbelief to be part of a good story,” he says.

Gordon says there will likely be other surprise returns and that a few new faces will be joining the cast as well, including Oscar-winning screen legend Jon Voight and Tony winner Cherry Jones, who will play the show’s first female president. “[Cherry’s] story turns into an interesting one,” Gordon promises. “It’s hard, having done so many fictional administrations, to find new stuff sometimes, and I think in this case, we found some great stuff.”

The show will also see a change of scenery this year: For the first time in 24’s history, the entire season will take place in Washington, D.C., instead of in Los Angeles. But one thing that won’t change is the heavy dose of adrenaline-pumping action. “Some of the things that we’ve done [this season] are unlike any of the things we’ve ever done before,” Gordon says. “This is probably the best chance for people who’ve never seen the show to see it.”

So set your watches and get ready for another daylong Jack Bauer–led thrill ride.

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The Following Took Place Between …

Think you’ve had a tough day at the office? A peek inside Jack Bauer’s personal journal will make you grateful that all you have to worry about is that annoying coworker in the next cube and a copy machine that’s on the blink. Here’s just a sampling of all that our hero’s endured thus far. -- T.K.

Day 1
7 p.m. to 8 p.m.
Infiltrated secret government detention center that’s holding presumed-dead warlord
10 p.m. to 11 p.m.
Saved presidential candidate’s life for the second time in 24 hours

Day 2
1 a.m. to 2 a.m.
Reached inside a corpse with my bare hands to remove a microchip containing vital intel
5 a.m. to 6 a.m.
Saved my daughter’s life over the phone by talking her through shooting her abusive boss

Day 3
10 p.m. to 11 p.m.
Kissed my wife’s murderer in order to get her to cooperate in my sting operation
7 a.m. to 8 a.m.
Rushed to my daughter’s rescue while she was on an undercover assignment (Can’t that girl take care of herself?)

Day 4
10 a.m. to 11 a.m.
Held up a convenience store to delay a suspect
6 a.m. to 7 a.m.
Faked my own death to keep the government from killing me

Day 5
11 a.m. to 12 p.m.
Watched my ex-girlfriend come face to face with the woman I stayed with while in hiding -- not awkward at all
5 p.m. to 6 p.m.
Shot an old family friend in the leg to get information from her terrorist husband

Day 6
7 p.m. to 8 p.m.
Took the controls of a nuclear device and stopped it from detonating
5 a.m. to 6 a.m.
Rescued my teenage nephew from my deranged father