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by Ted S. McGregor Jr. & r & & r & 24 (Mondays, 9 pm, Fox) & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & maginary mushroom clouds over American cities have helped sell Tom Clancy books -- and our invasion of Iraq. So it's no surprise that a mushroom cloud over Los Angeles (Valencia, really, but close enough) was the kicker to the start of the new season of 24. Yes, you are supposed to be scared -- and tune in every Monday night.

Luckily for America, Jack Bauer (Keifer Sutherland) is on the job. Having just been busted out of a Chinese prison, he's right back into another really, really bad day, documented in 24's patented real-time. Yes, 24 may be the most formulaic show on TV, but that formula works -- it's suspense on steroids, with a cliffhanger every week and beloved characters routinely sacrificed on the altar of high ratings.

I'm not saying 24 is great, with its far-fetched plotlines, comic book dialogue and one-dimensional characters, but it's as good as or better than what passes for a movie these days. (Which may explain why so many people are staying away from the cineplexes.)

But this season of 24 -- Day Six -- looks like it's going to tweak our expectations even more than past seasons. With a back-story that seems oddly familiar to anyone who watches CNN (or Fox News, as the characters do on the show -- nice product placement!), it appears we're in for a dramatization of the real-life stakes of our real-life war on terror. On one side, you've got President Wayne Palmer's sister, a Muslim-loving, do-good lawyer, fighting the warrantless roundup of dark-complexioned Americans. On the other, you've got a paranoid presidential adviser who seems a lot like any number of real-life paranoids we have all gotten to know over recent years.

Maybe it's not so weird in these days of manufactured reality that we'll get more of a national discussion on the finer points of the war on terror on 24 than we ever will on Fox News.

But don't worry: If you think 24 is devolving into some kind of liberal tract, the show is also quick to remind you of that old conservative axiom -- that you are not paranoid if they really are out to get you. On 24, that nice Middle Eastern kid across the street really is a terrorist.


My Name Is Earl

Jason Lee might be the funniest guy on TV, and this week he gets a hand from oddball auteur John Waters, who plays a creepy funeral director who helps Earl check another item off his list. (Thursday, 1/18, NBC, 9 pm)


Tony Shalhoub has become this generation's Columbo, replacing Peter Falk's charming schlumpiness with his own character's pathological fastidiousness. (There's got to be a cultural critique in the kinds of tics we prefer in our detectives these days, but I digress.) Despite cheesy storylines, and corny acting, Monk is a surprisingly satisfying way to pass an hour. (Friday, 1/19, USA, 9 pm)

Austin City Limits

Remember 2003, when freedom wasn't free and the Dixie Chicks were America's most hated band? To see who really won that fight, you can compare the president's polls to the sales of the Dixie Chicks' recent album, Taking the Long Way. Or you can just watch the Chicks on TV's best live music show and decide for yourself who you'd rather listen to. (Saturday, 1/20, PBS, 9 pm)

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