Jack, armed, tanned and bringing back the peacoat (Kelsey McNeal/FOX)

Traditional action-hero movies seem more and more to be a thing of the multiplex past, with studios not even bothering to replace Ford, Eastwood, Schwarzenegger and Willis. No wonder Sunday’s arrival of Kiefer Sutherland as terrorist vanquisher Jack Bauer feels momentous, like the end of a drought.

When 24 was legendarily unleashed back in the fall of 2001 as a presciently timed weekly hit of danger right after September 11, its zigzag-thriller immediacy felt fresh and new. At the same time, the storytelling chops needed to sustain a real-time, save-the-day conceit weren’t as sharp as they should have been. The show often felt undercooked and disorganized, even accepting the inherent silliness of that much shit happening to one secret agent. But something started to click a few seasons ago, when the creators figured out that a grand, season-worthy hazard like a potential nuke explosion could be the frame for several smaller, fire-dowsing storylines — find this or that bad guy, clear Jack’s name, get some crucial piece of information — that could resolve themselves after only a few episodes. And, most crucially, within those subplots, there are one-episode micro-adventures — will they get to that warehouse in Glendale in time? — that are like the adventure equivalent of Russian nesting dolls. (Note how many times on 24 you’ll hear someone say, “I’ll get it to you within the hour” or “It should only take you 30 minutes.” It’s not only viewer code for “We’ll give you a satisfying ending for sure this episode,” but also a funny in-joke for Angelenos about the time we always think it takes to get from point A to point B in our homey sprawl.)

Coupled with the fourth-year decision to launch seasons in January with multihour blastoffs, followed by fresh explosions, bullet play, showdowns and torture every week, the effect has been of a show successfully maturing even as it instills a genuine childlike sense of excitement among its viewers. Last year was the series’ best season yet, from the juicy helpings of betrayal, derring-do and character-killing shock to the memorable characterizations of schemers in power (Gregory Itzin’s weaselly president), allegiance-shifting mysteriosos (Peter Weller’s brutal businessman) and unlikely heroes (Jean Smart’s neurotic first lady). While a serialized TV cousin like Lost too often seems held captive by its devotion to back-story drama at the expense of forward motion, 24 has become the sleekest, sharpest freight train in prime time, its exploitative qualities addictive, its fantasy pungent, until its flaws (emotional thinness, CTU boss incompetence, cell phone exposition) weirdly become its guilty-pleasure virtues.

Where does that leave Season 6, then, when the show has stemmed major disasters for five years running and its intensity level of choice is 11? As well-oiled as before, actually, and, judging from the four hours airing over Sunday and Monday, unafraid of edging its parallel-universe America ever closer toward a world war nightmare of mass hysteria. While Jack Bauer has been a prisoner of the Chinese in the nearly two years that have transpired since last we saw him — his back a Jackson Pollock array of scars — terrorists have started a campaign of bombings in different American cities, with death tolls reaching nearly 1,000. The populace, naturally, is nervy and suspicious. (The first scene is a young Middle Eastern–looking man who can’t convince a xenophobic bus driver to let him on after the doors have closed.)

What is to be done? This year’s president is Wayne Palmer (D.B. Woodside), brother to the assassinated commander in chief from earlier seasons, David Palmer — and his team in the Oval Office is involved in intense debate (ah, the unreality of TV) over retaliation, especially the establishment of concentration camps — or “detention centers,” as Peter MacNicol’s White House official prefers to call them — for Muslim Americans. MacNicol is shaping up to be the best new casting decision so far — and that includes the solid additions of Regina King and Harry J. Lennix — because unlike the tendency of 24 actors to start sounding alike when they discuss imminent terror, he delivers nearly every hawkish, Constitution-shredding opinion with a hilarious weariness. He’s the dangerously bored apparatchik it’s easy to imagine really exists in the corridors of power.

Elsewhere, because 24 also likes to throw in everyday folk whose lives are touched by the day’s crises, we see the effect of the country’s mood on a young suburban Muslim named Ahmed (Kal Penn), whose father is suddenly arrested by the authorities, and who begins to encounter vigilante brutishness from neighbors down the road. Will the family across the street come to his rescue? And then, of course, there’s CTU, that hotbed of clacking keyboards, grid-controlling masterminds and inopportunely timed office politics. It’s where we are reunited with — yes! — beloved scowling analyst Chloe (Mary Lynn Rajskub), whose snarling impatience with rules and lesser-thans may be more iconically powerful with 24 fans than Jack Bauer’s whispery machismo. Having survived more workplace upheaval than a grunt on the frontlines, she now sports a grown-out brunette do, management-style clothes, more control-room responsibility and a protective, equally arrogant boyfriend/underling who calls her a “hottie” and grabs her ass. Love your new power, Chloe, but please don’t get distracted by boy problems when the world’s going to need every furrowed brow and deft touch with satellite uplinks you can muster over the next day! (I worry, that’s all.) There’ll be time to rest 23 hours from now.

As for Jack, of course he finds his way back into the thick of things: defying expectations, pissing off superiors. And there’s a determinedly delivered “Put me through to the president” in your future, viewers. Sutherland, who has become as expert at communicating pain as Harrison Ford, as adept at mumbly resolve as Eastwood and Willis, and as believably unstoppable as Schwarzenegger, is also comfortable enough in his career-defining role that he even takes a few chances with some cracks in our hero’s armor. We get hints of deep shame, an unexpected lack of nerve interrogating a suspect and, in one scene, a teary breakdown — all of which do their part in keeping Jack human in times that call for the superhuman. During one moment of weakness, though, Jack mutters, “I don’t know how to do this anymore.” Yikes. If Jack of all people needs a pep talk, we’re in bigger trouble than I thought.

24 | FOX | Four-hour season premiere Sun., Jan. 14, 8-10 p.m. & Mon., Jan. 15, 8-10 p.m. | Regular-season airtime Mon., 9 p.m.

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