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Kelsey McNeal, FOX
Kiefer Sutherland stars as Jack Bauer on "24." The first two hours of Season 8 air Sunday.

PASADENA, Calif. — In the first few minutes of the eighth-season premiere of "24," Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) does something he's almost never done in the first seven seasons.

He smiles.

"It felt weird to do it," Sutherland said with a smile of his own.

Because it hasn't happened with great frequency. Jack, of course, has been so busy saving the world time after time after time that he hasn't had much time to find the humor in all those terrorist acts.

"The only time Jack Bauer smiled … was in Season 3, when he had captured Nina and was flying back with her on the cargo plane," Sutherland said. "He had her in handcuffs — he looked at her and smiled.

"And that was about four episodes before he got to shoot her."

As Season 8 begins (the first four hours air Sunday 8-10 p.m. and Monday 7-9 p.m. on Fox/Ch. 13), Jack is retired. He's recovered from his, um, seemingly fatal poisoning last season. He's spending some time with his grandchild — thus, his uncustomary happiness.

"So this was a different kind of smile," Sutherland said. "But I must say, when we first shot it, it felt awkward for me and I think everybody else involved."

Of course, "24" is not about to become a family drama. Let alone a happy family drama. Jack is sucked into yet another crisis of global proportions. Within the context of the show, it actually makes sense.

But we're talking about a show in which terrorists in scuba suits crawled through tunnels into the White House last season. But, in this case, Jack coming out of retirement is actually quite easy to accept.

Which is not to say that "24" is suddenly absolutely believable. There's a character who works at CTU in a job that requires the highest of security clearances and presumably the toughest of background checks — who is living under a false identity.

But this season does start from sort of a different place than what we've become accustomed to.

"They put Jack in such a positive place at the very beginning of this series that it gave him something to fight for," Sutherland said. "I think just inherently we have taken the character in some very dark places — the loss of his wife, the estrangement from his daughter, the death of (love interest Audrey Raines). And one of the great things as an actor is to be able to take all those kind of tragedies and mount those as part of the character for the following season.

"So to be able to start Season 8 with some kind of hope and give him something to really live for and fight for was a really different and kind of very exciting place to be as a character. As much as you kind of acknowledge it in the very beginning, it really has some resonance throughout the later episodes."

Where those later episodes take us is impossible to say. There is, as we've come to expect, a decided turn near the end of the fourth hour that's clearly taking us in another direction.

The first four hours are good. Very good. Certainly, "24" fans will enjoy them.

But in recent years, seasons have started strong and then the train has run off the track. Whether that will happen again this year … well, we'll just have to watch and see.

TIME GOES BY: It's been nearly nine years since "24" went into production. Sutherland was 35 when the show began; he just turned 43.

"Jack Bauer is probably a little slower now," Sutherland said.

But he also recalled last season, after filming the 150th episode, watching a montage of those first seven-plus seasons.

"(We) were laughing and thinking, oh, how cool all of this is," Sutherland said. "And then about halfway through the little documentary, they showed some pictures of us from Season 1. We realized that we had aged and we stopped laughing."

CHLOE STRUGGLES: Chloe O'Brien (Mary Lynn Rajskub) returns this season on "24," but — for the first time — she's not the ultimate computer whiz. She's taken some time off and when she returns to CTU, the technology has sort of moved beyond her.

Which at least one critic believed was out of character for Chloe.

"Is it hard to believe that a woman wants to be a mother to her child?" Rajskub said with mock weariness. "And maybe take her nose out of a book every once in a while? Take a break from the labyrinth of genius that inhabits her brain? And that the world actually goes on without me, technically?

"Sorry. I was just really enjoying myself there."

But, seriously folks, it isn't all that hard to believe.

"I have been at home with the child," Rajskub said. "And when I get back, all the protocols have changed. Whatever a protocol is."

PRINZE PLEASED: Freddie Prinze Jr. joins the cast of "24" this season as Cole Ortiz, a tough, smart CTU field agent. And he's more than a bit happy with the change of pace.

"I mean, 'kind of pleased' doesn't really describe it," Prinze said. "I don't get offered this kind of a job, period. You know, for most of my career, if I'm in it, I'm struggling to fall in love for 96 minutes, and I always get the girl."

e-mail: pierce@desnews.com