24 was once an exciting experiment in long-form storytelling, each episode representing 60 minutes in a real-time tale. By season seven, though, that premise just feels like a gimmick. The season premiere (Sunday, 7 p.m., Fox) finds government agent Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) chasing yet another batch of terrorists, and not even a surprise villain can bring back the thrills. The poker-faced good guys rush around looking at computer monitors and speaking in terse chunks of exposition; the sweaty bad guys hack through firewalls to bring down the power grid. So what else is new?
The one element that still distinguishes 24 is its obsession with torture. Bauer is dragged before the Senate to justify his use of extreme tactics to foil terrorists. This plot point could have been intriguing if handled subtly; instead, 24 shoves the right-wing pro-torture argument down our throats. And after the recent Democratic landslide, it feels pretty outdated.
This season of 24 promises to be - if you'll pardon the expression - torture.
Friday, 8 pm (Sci Fi)
In the series finale, a creature with a mask-like face, sharp teeth, feline eyes and a Darth Vader voice warns the starship Daedalus of an unstoppable alien force heading toward Earth.
I was pretty scared until I learned the creature's name. It's very hard to take an apocalyptic warning seriously from someone named Todd. On their way out the door, did the producers simply lose interest in coming up with a suitably exotic name? Who's the alien with plans to destroy Earth - Ethel?
Expecting a Miracle
Saturday, 8 pm (Hallmark Channel)
Cheech Marin, the avatar of stoner comedy, plays a kindly priest in this sentimental Hallmark movie. When I heard about it, I wondered, "Is he high?"
An unhappy couple (Jason Priestley, Teri Polo), unable to conceive a child, have car trouble during a trip to Mexico. They land in a town where everyone is amazingly nice. When they meet Marin's priest, he tells them a story about a stranger who once came to visit. The stranger was thirsty after a long trip through the desert, and the townsfolk turned their back on him - everyone except a crippled boy. "To thank the boy for his kindness," Marin says, "the stranger transformed him into a white dove who flew three times around the plaza."
Yep, he's high.
Golden Globe Awards
Sunday, 7 pm (NBC)
Last year's Golden Globe production was the weirdest awards ceremony of all time. Nobody showed up due to the writers' strike, but the show must go on - the "show," in this case, being two flunkies who stood at a podium and simply read the names of the winners. Golden Globe history is rife with embarrassing moments, but this took the cake.
Now it's back to normal - that is, Hollywood showing up to drink at clubby tables and pat itself on the back. As always, the Foreign Press Association obliges by nominating all the productions that the industry deems "important," no matter how good they really are. Could this thing be as boring as it was last year, even with stars in attendance? You're tempted to say no, but you overestimate the Golden Globes at your peril.
Tuesday & Wednesday, 7 pm (Fox)
The singing competition's new season features a fourth judge, Kara DioGuardi. Given that erratic judge Paula Abdul always seems perched on the edge of disaster, it's probably a good idea to have a spare.
13: Fear Is Real
Wednesday, 7 pm (CW)
Sam Raimi's reality series takes 13 contestants into the Louisiana bayou to play out a bunch of horror-movie scenarios, eliminating them one by one. Did I say "eliminate"? I should have said "kill," to use 13's parlance. The series wallows in the grotesque, thinking we'll be delighted to see people blindfolded, gagged and buried alive. The unseen narrator, who calls himself The Mastermind, has one of those deep, distorted voices that come straight out of hell (or a movie studio's sound-effects department).
The series isn't enjoyably scary, like a good horror movie. Watching a real woman tied up in the woods and screaming in real terror - are we having fun yet? Plus, the otherworldly vibe is ruined every time the way-too-worldly contestants open their mouths. They're so whiny and stupid that they'd surely scare away any evil spirits.
Make 'em Laugh: The Funny Business of America
Wednesday, 8 pm (PBS)
PBS's history of American comedy begins with a parody of PBS itself. Host Billy Crystal targets deadly-earnest Ken Burns documentaries with a mock-serious narration over a Civil War-style tintype.
It's a great start, but part one of Make 'em Laugh quickly becomes...a deadly-earnest PBS documentary. Yes, the clips of Harold Lloyd, Woody Allen, Steve Martin and Robin Williams are funny, but your laughter is stifled by a bland, rudimentary survey that's worthy of a middle school textbook. The episode hops from comedian to comedian so quickly that you learn almost nothing about them.
I guess you could show this to 11-year-olds who've never heard of Steve Martin or Woody Allen before. Better yet, chuck the documentary and show them Roxanne and Sleeper instead.