And so it returns, at last. God might have rested on the seventh day, but Jack Bauer will receive no such luxury.

Then again, one could make the point that he already got his time off for bad behavior, though the hiatus was unplanned. The seventh season of Fox's "24" took a year-plus to get here as a consequence of the WGA strike. A two-hour appetite-whetter titled "24: Redemption," labeled a prequel, aired in November. But in the main, the show has been gone since May 2007.

And considering the jump-the-shark/nuke-the-fridge pronouncements that accompanied Season 6, the clamor for the "24" return has been notably absent.

The good news is that the now customary two-night, four-hour kickoff finds the series returning to its heart-in-your-throat best, replete with old villains, intricate conspiracies, moral quandaries and political intrigue. What easily could have devolved into self-parody again has become a riveting thriller that hits the ground sprinting. Of course, that also was the case at the beginning of the sixth season, and it didn't last, so we'll have to see if "24" can avoid the dreaded March and April qualitative blues this time around.

Things kick off with former Counter Terrorism Unit badass Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) in court, his beloved CTU having been disbanded. Now he's forced to answer for his excesses before a Senate subcommittee; he sits there essentially justifying his torture techniques. But it won't be long before Bauer is pressed back into service.

A scientist has been kidnapped, and the nation's air travel is suddenly under siege (sound familiar?). Moreover, the threat is emanating from his longtime pal Tony Almeida (Carlos Bernard), thought to be in the ground but, well, this is "24," where the difference between life and death is measured in minutes. Pretty soon, Jack is having to play more or less by the rules with an FBI agent (Annie Wersching) while the president (Cherry Jones) faces off with a Mugabe-like African dictator.

Through the first four hours, the twists and turns and squirms fly around with the usual swiftness as the clock ominously ticks ever forward. One of these days, you've got to figure that poor Jack will wind up spending all 24 hours in therapy. I mean, how is this guy able to still function at all? Fortunately for the audience, the show on which he struggles to save the republic is back on track after a season of misdirection followed by a year away.

But as the series is called "24" rather than "4," next week is when the real creative challenge begins. (partialdiff)