The network sells it as a dashing adventure-drama, spiced with the hook of real-time storytelling.
But lately, fans of Fox-TVs 24 could be forgiven for thinking it's a covert example of a much more insidious genre: the nighttime soap opera.
Consider the evidence in the show's third season, which includes storylines about the president's brother sleeping with his biggest political supporter, and a mysterious baby that turns out to be the child of the heroine's unmarried boyfriend.
Other clues: way too many scenes with groups of serious people yelling at each other over serious things. A find-the-deadly-virus plotline that seemed to move slower than star Kiefer Sutherland's movie career.
And just when it all seemed about to turn into an espionage-laced version of Peyton Place (did the former first lady actually kill the president's political enemy by keeping his wife from giving him heart medication?), Fox gave the show a break to avoid airing repeats it knew would only confuse already reeling fans.
But 24 is set to return at 9 tonight with a run of nine episodes leading to its season finale. And if the three preview tapes are any indication, the show is poised to reclaim its glory as the tautest drama on television, provided producers can keep the outlandish melodrama in check.
Here's the story so far: Sutherland's Jack Bauer has been trying to get a deadly ebola-like virus, posing as a corrupt agent working with a Mexican crime family to purchase the contagion. When the deal fell apart, Bauer moved heaven and earth to get the virus from the baddie who was selling it, killing longtime nemesis Nina Myers in the process.
Now a new baddie, who turns out to be someone from Bauer's past, has obtained the virus and has used it to contaminate a hotel to prove its power. Other vials of the deadly substance are spread over the city, giving our villain tremendous leverage over Bauer, principled President David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert) and the rest of Bauer's Counter Terrorist Unit.
These stories soar when 24 producers capitalize on the show's strength: its sheer velocity. Tonight's episode opens with efforts by CTU agents to cope with the virus in the hotel, mixed with scenes of the president learning the police suspect his wife of murder and Bauer hoping to follow a henchman to the man with the horrible virus.
(Since a plague that kills in 14 hours is still too slow for a series that covers a single day, even the virus gets amped in these episodes.)
You can't help feeling for these characters, all stuck in what would be the worst 24 hours of anyone's life - some, for the third time. So far, Bauer alone has kicked a heroin addiction and broke an enemy out of jail before being forced to briefly join forces with Myers, the woman who killed his wife in the first season.
His pal, CTU honcho Tony Almeida, recovered from being shot in the neck only to be accused of losing focus - imagine that! - and now sees his wife of three years stuck in the virus-infected hotel. Talk about a tough workday. There always are inevitable inconsistencies in a show where every second onscreen is supposed to be a moment in the character's lives. They zip far too quickly through the streets of Los Angeles, always catch people by cell phone on the first ring and never need to eat, sleep or use the restroom.
Producers also have an unfortunate tendency to underuse characters: Bauer's daughter and CTU computer expert Kim (Elisha Cuthbert) has little to do besides sit in front of a keyboard and look concerned. Ditto with NYPD Blue expatriate Andrea Thompson, whose work as infectious disease expert Nicole Duncan has consisted mostly of telling people they're not going to live long.
Still, 24 fans know these are just the aftereffects of the show's regular mid run dip in quality (remember Kim Bauer's cougar attack last season?); a breather before the roller coaster run to the blockbuster finish.
And in a TV universe that rewards dreck like The Apprentice and Average Joe, we need to take our television thrills where we can find them.