Renee Walker (Annie Wersching) and Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) in '24'

The Fox Network’s venerable action-drama series 24, now in its eighth year, has always had to perform a very difficult balancing act: trying to surprise viewers who expect to be surprised, while somehow staying sufficiently connected with reality to sustain viewer interest. In addition, the showmakers have to try to remain somewhat near the extremely high standard established by seasons 2 and 3, in which they expertly blended political relevance, suspenseful drama, theater-quality action sequences, and vivid characters who continually surprise us with their choices without ever bogging down in unnecessary pretensions to psychological depth.

This latter characteristic is a key element of the show’s success. Like real human beings, the characters in 24 are motivated largely by present concerns while filtering them through their individual experiences and personalities. In conventional suspense literature and filmed dramas of our time, the central characters typically are given some traumatic events in the recent or distant past which they are trying to work through and over which they agonize as the present narrative events remind them of it.

Of course such things do happen in real life, and they are present in 24, but the use of it as a convention becomes more than a little ridiculous in today’s dramas as nearly all crime and suspense writers employ it, making it appear that no one but disturbed individuals gets involved in the good work of preventing violence toward innocents. That’s clearly not the message the creators of these narratives intend to send, and it conflicts with their desire to create plausible central characters.

This convention is now an obviously artificial attempt to attribute people’s choices to their psychological condition—and thus constitutes at least some acceptance of philosophical determinism. That undermines drama by reducing the characters’ freedom of choice; as Aristotle noted, drama is the result of choices characters are forced to make.

In 24, by contrast, although nearly all of the central characters have endured traumatic experiences, their choices are clearly their own, and the writers and performers make this quite clear. Jack, for example, is often torn between his desire to get the job done and his conscience regarding the things he must do to achieve it. This has been a more prominent aspect of the show in recent years but was always a concern from the beginning, as Jack’s intense sorrow and feeling of responsibility for the death of his wife in season 1 made quite clear.

Such character arcs make sense in 24 because they flow from the narrative itself: Jack and the others are presented as having the jobs they have because they simply want to do good, not because they’re working out some psychological trauma from childhood. That makes all the difference in our evaluation of their choices, as they are based primarily on reasoning and not emotion and thus are open to analysis and criticism.

It’s a significantly braver approach than the now-conventional one that depicts the hero or heroine as forced into the confrontation with evil. Jack chooses freely, and we can respect him for that without being forced to endorse his actions as being dictated by circumstances and his psychological condition.

This year’s two-day, four-hour premiere event has the series off to its best start in several years. Former U.S. Counter-Terrorism Unit (CTU) agent Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) is now a grandfather and just wants to leave New York City for a peaceful life in Los Angeles, where he can visit regularly with his daughter, Kim (Elisha Cuthbert), and her young daughter. Longtime CTU colleague Chloe O’Brien (Mary Lynn Rajskub), however, gets Jack back in the game to help her prevent an assassination attempt, the investigation of which her painfully obtuse and rash boss is bungling horribly.

The plot begins with the attempt by an apparently unofficial Russian paramilitary group to stop President Allison Taylor’s (Cherry Jones) pending agreement with a Middle East nation under which the latter will give up its nuclear weapons program. Their motives for wanting to spike the agreement remain murky throughout the first four hours of the narrative, but the group’s nefarious nature and ruthlessness are quite clear, and that’s enough to force the initially reluctant Jack back into action.

Also returning to action is former FBI agent Renee Walker (Annie Wersching). She’s now unemployed after having gone seriously rogue after the hard lessons she learned from Jack Bauer during last season’s narrative. Now, having persuaded Renee that “extraordinary measures” are sometimes necessary in order to prevent evil, Jack finds himself trying to reign in the monster he created, as Renee pursues with bizarre ruthlessness her undercover work in penetrating the Russian gang to find out what they’re up to.

As in previous seasons, the villains feel no compunction whatsoever in killing people, taking hostages, and committing a diversity of explosive mayhem in pursuit of their goals. The forces of good and order, by contrast, are constrained by their adherence to certain moral standards, although the protection of innocents justifies the performance of otherwise prohibited actions, and Jack’s actions and conversations about his choices (and Renee’s) typically reflect this tension.

Just when the danger to innocents is sufficient to override these ethical concerns without becoming an “end justifies the means” excuse is an eternal moral question, and it’s what has always been at the center of 24. It’s what makes the show serious and important while adding to its entertainment value.

The new episodes employ the same narrative gimmicks as in previous seasons, and they still work well, as they have done for decades in the cinema and melodramatic literature: races against time, hairsbreadth escapes, personal crises, hidden agendas, secret identities and impostures, betrayals, historically momentous political stakes, great dangers to the civilian population, unexpected role reversals, spectacular physical triumphs by the hero, and the like.

All of that makes 24 highly entertaining, but what makes it really click with viewers is the show’s serious moral and philosophical core. It’s melodrama, all right, but of the highest order.