24. 9 p.m. Sunday and 8 p.m. Monday, Channel 29.
PASADENA, Calif. - For a so-called serious actress, Cherry Jones doesn't seem to take herself very seriously.
Which could be one reason why the two-time Tony winner's having so much fun playing President Allison Taylor on Fox's "24," the role that last season won her an Emmy.
"Having been a Sisters of Charity principal in a grade school in the Bronx in 1964, it was just a lateral move to the presidency," Jones, 53, joked this week in an allusion to her role as Sister Aloysius in John Patrick Shanley's play "Doubt."
As the eighth season of "24" gets under way Sunday, President Taylor is still in office, and Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland), who's apparently spent the show's hiatus getting to know the young granddaughter he'd only just learned he had, is about to be drawn into yet another Very Bad Day.
And after years of being one of the theater's leading go-to girls for gravitas, there is, Jones acknowledged, a kind of relief in playing a character in what's essentially a comic book.
"I remember the first time I heard Howard Gordon refer to it as a superhero comic book/soap opera. I mean, they know what they're writing, and they do it really, really well," she said.
The relief may extend to the audience, she suggested.
In an age of terrorism, people "want to be comforted. And they want someone named Jack Bauer to make sure that at the end of the night, all the bad guys have been, you know, have been dismissed," she said.
As for Sutherland's oft-repeated statement that the show could go on without him, "I can't imagine it," said Jones.
"I never watched the show before I got on it, and then I started catching up with all the past seasons. And of course I became hooked like everyone else. I don't even like violence."
Her favorite season: "I loved [season] 5. As an actor, 5 was just sublime. Between Greg Itzin and Jean Smart, it was just a sublime cast," she said. "I could just have watched Itzin and Jean Smart all day long."
Kim Raver, who played Audrey Raines, and Jude Ciccolella, who was Mike Novick, also caught Jones' eye as standout players that season.
As for finding herself famous on a larger stage, she said, "It's just so shocking to me the demographics for this show. It's all over the map. And politically it's all over the map. And ethnically, and gender and everything, agewise - although I'm a little nervous when fifth-graders come up and recognize [her] from '24.' I think, 'Oh, that's not as it should be."
Still, "it's fun, and again, it's a nice, manageable new form of celebrity," she said. "I think it would be fun if you were to go to another country and realize that you're recognized in another country. I imagine going to India after this season, with Anil Kapoor [the 'Slumdog Millionaire' star who'll also be playing a world leader this season] could be quite a fun experience."
Jones, of course, is part of the cast that's traditionally been considered disposable on "24," and she knew all along there was no guarantee President Taylor would still be in office when Day 8 rolled around.
"You know, I can't remember" when she first learned she'd be coming back. "But I can tell you I danced an Irish jig," she said, giggling.
"Mainly because I loved working with this crew. I love this crew and I learned so much from them, because I've never had this sustained amount of time filming anything before, because my film parts have always been so small. So they've really been wonderful teachers for me - it's been like a well-paid workshop for me, this show," Jones said.
If Mark Valley is not yet as big a star as "24's" Sutherland, it's not for lack of trying on Fox's part, which cast him as the winning (though little watched) "Keen Eddie" and practically brought him back from the dead on "Fringe."
Starting Sunday (8 p.m., Channel 29), Valley is a "Human Target," in an action thriller produced by Melrose Park's Jonathan E. Steinberg and loosely based on a DC Comics series.
(After another airing of the pilot after "American Idol" on Tuesday, the show moves into its 9 p.m. Wednesday time slot the following week.)
Though there are hints of a darker side to Valley's Christopher Chance, "Human Target's" far lighter than Steinberg's previous series, "Jericho," with nary a mushroom cloud in sight in the two episodes I've seen, which take place, respectively, on a bullet train and a jetliner.
It doesn't hurt that Chi McBride ("Pushing Daisies") is Chance's partner - like Valley, he can be light on his feet - and along with Jackie Earle Haley, who plays a computer whiz they work with, it's a fun cast.
Nothing very important is happening here, but if you love "24" for its silliness rather than its sometimes muddled message, "Human Target" might just hit the bull's-eye for you.
Ellen Gray is in Pasadena for the Television Critics Association's winter meetings. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow her on Twitter at @elgray or read her blog at go.philly.com/ellengray.