Out in the real world, the talk is all of "soft power" and "smart power", but in the fairyland that is 24, there's only one kind of power that counts, and it's hard, damn hard. Already on Day Seven we've had an FBI agent using Jack Bauer's mere presence as an aid to interrogation, bringing him into a room in rather the same way that the Spanish Inquisition used to go through the ritual of "Showing the Instruments", giving the accused a good look at the racks, thumbscrews and artistically corkscrewed skewers as a way of prompting a confession.
Last night, we got Full-On Jack for the first time this season, unleashed on his erstwhile friend Tony Almeida, all but breaking his neck in a last-ditch attempt to get him to reveal the whereabouts of – oh look, I can't say I'm really that interested in the details of whatever it was Tony was supposed to be revealing. It's all MacGuffin, when you come down to it; the mechanics of the latest terrorist threat are never the point in 24. It's always an excuse for another twist to a continuing drama of betrayal, confession and vindication.
At the start of the day Jack was jerked out of a breakfast-time Senate Committee hearing, at which he was cheerfully defending torture as a means of protecting the American way, to help track down the men who had kidnapped a top American computer scientist: with this man in their hands, we were told, the bad guys would be able to get through the firewalls that protect everything from air-traffic control to the nation's water supply. And behind the kidnapping was Tony Almeida, once Jack's most loyal helper, and once clearly established as dead, but now evidently alive and working out a grudge on the federal government. Only Jack could track him down: "You know him," somebody pointed out, "You know how he thinks." Meanwhile, President Allison Taylor was wrestling with the question of whether to send American troops in to keep the peace in the central African nation of Sangala; unknown to her, her husband, Henry, was failing to come to terms with their son's suicide, which he firmly believed was murder.
In last night's double bill, which took us up to lunchtime (not that anybody ever does anything as mundane as eat round here), all this was turned neatly on its head. Slammed up by Jack against the wall of an interrogation room, Tony mustered up enough breath to mutter a codeword in Jack's ear, revealing that he isn't a traitor after all. He's working under the deepest cover imaginable, trying to break the terrorist ring, on an investigation being run by Jack's old friends Chloe the Computer Nerd and Bill Buchanan. They have uncovered a conspiracy that has penetrated so deep into the heart of government that they've had to go rogue in order to fight it. On top of that, the president's husband discovered that his son committed suicide after all, but whoops, switcheroo, that was just a bluff and it was a murder all along, because the lad had uncovered exactly the same conspiracy; and, wouldn't you know it, the evil dictator of Sangala is behind it all.
In TV franchise terms, 24 is now pretty middle-aged, and it seems to be suffering a mid-life crisis, swaggering around in ill-fitting clothes in an effort to convince itself it's still young, chasing after pretty girls (hey, you should see the hot tomato of an FBI agent Jack's hooked up with this time), and generally making a prat of itself. The problem is partly ideological (at a time when the rest of us are looking forward to the dissolution of Guantanamo Bay, 24 is still plugging the politics that built it), but even more to do with tedium and implausibility. There is a pervasive sense of creative exhaustion. In several of the fight scenes, and last night in a car park shoot-out, I saw an awful lot of Jason Bourne, and frankly, Jason Bourne did it an awful lot better.
In between, the book of spy cliches has been ransacked. Last night they even stooped to the bad guy casually shooting a henchman without blinking, just to show us how evil he is (a little confusingly, we'd been told a few minutes earlier that this particular bad guy places a high value on personal loyalty, but then loyalty, in 24-world, is something that only Jack truly understands). Incidentally, the bad guy, played by our own Peter Wingfield, formerly of Holby City, is reportedly British, ex-SAS; unfortunately, Wingfield himself doesn't seem to have been privy to this information and puts on a rather ropy American accent.
But the real problem is that 24 has created a universe in which everybody is a potential traitor and in which treachery is the main currency of human relationships: the only thing a viewer can ever trust is Jack's gut. In this context, one more conspiracy, one more betrayal, can never be much of a surprise; worse, it's not even going to be that much fun.