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'24,' 'Louie': Taking their not-so-sweet time

Two very different TV characters return tonight after unusually long breaks.

This image released by FX shows Louis C.K. in a scene from "Louie."  (AP Photo/FX)
This image released by FX shows Louis C.K. in a scene from "Louie." (AP Photo/FX)Read more

* 24: LIVE ANOTHER DAY. 8 tonight, Fox 29.

* LOUIE. 10 and 10:30 tonight, FX.

THEY'VE been away, but now they're back.

And while Jack Bauer, the former counterintelligence agent played by Kiefer Sutherland on Fox's "24," might not have much in common with the semiautobiographical comedian that Louis C.K. portrays on FX's "Louie," they're both playing for (and with) time in a changing world.

We now feel free to time-shift our viewing, waiting days, weeks, sometimes even years, to watch.

Why should the people who make TV feel bound by seasons or schedules or established formats? Or even farewells?

Four years after we saw him become a fugitive on the run from both the Russians and from his own government, Jack's back tonight in the two-hour premiere of "24: Live Another Day," a 12-hour production set in London that Fox is calling an "event series," but that will, like the original "24," cover the events of a single day over the course of a season.

The show will skip hours here and there, but the "24" clock will continue to run, and if the first two hours are any indication, the time away has been good for the franchise.

Or maybe absence really does make the heart grow fonder. I couldn't even begin to miss Jack until he went away.

It's been 19 months since Season 3 of "Louie" signed off with a New Year's Eve episode that included the death of a woman he'd once dated and ended with the comedian impulsively hopping a plane to Beijing and celebrating with a family of strangers.

Given the singular nature of "Louie," whose star also writes, directs and edits a production so meticulously crafted he could sell it on Etsy, it didn't seem out of line when he announced that he'd be taking a longer than usual break between seasons.

But if you thought a rejuvenated Louis C.K. would mean a cheerier Louie, well, you don't know "Louie."

"If it was socially acceptable to go to bed at 4 p.m. and wake up at 2 p.m., I would totally do that," he tells an audience tonight in the first of two back-to-back episodes that will air each Monday for the next seven weeks.

At 46, he complains, he's finding life not too short but in fact too long. Fortunately for us, all those hours he claims he'd rather be sleeping allow a closer examination of the indignities of his character's daily routine. That routine is one long indignity, randomly punctuated by periods of something perhaps best described as lack of pain.

Of those periods, the ones that occur outside of bed are likely to involve Louie's daughters (Hadley Delany and Ursula Parker). "The Waltons," it's not, but I'm not sure any show on television nails the experience of being a divorced father as well as "Louie" does.

But is it a comedy? The man who makes it is a comedian, certainly, but he's moved beyond simple cringe humor to something more interesting, harnessing the rhythms of real life, with all its ill-timed incidents and unexpected punch lines, to tell short stories that surprise in a way television almost never does.

It's trickier to see Louie as some poor schlub with a career that's going nowhere, "Louie" having become a playground for people like Jerry Seinfeld, Sarah Silverman, Charles Grodin and Ellen Burstyn.

Yvonne Strahovski ("Chuck," "Dexter") does double-duty tonight, appearing in the second episode of "Louie," and in "24: Live Another Day," where she'll be a regular as CIA agent Kate Morgan, the latest in a series of cool, smart blonde women with whom Jack's tangled over the years.

As someone whose own husband turned out to be a spy for the other side - didn't I see this on "The Blacklist"? - Kate's not in the best standing with the agency. But she's not yet become the pariah Jack has.

Her pursuit of him will undoubtedly complicate his efforts to save yet another U.S. president (William Devane) from an assassin's (fill in lethal weapon-of-the-season here).

We last saw Jack magnified through the camera lens of a drone, and let's just say drones are very much in the picture four years later.

So, thank goodness, is Chloe O'Brian (Mary Lynn Rajskub), who's still cool (though not still blond) and who's the show's obvious entry point into the free-information movement.

Moving the show to London may complicate the car chases, but it also brings us Stephen Fry as the British prime minister. (Someone needs to make this a show.)

One of strengths of "24" - its real-time format - has also been one of its greatest weaknesses, since even the most complex conspiracies tended to falter somewhere in midseason, forcing writers to resort to random cougar sightings or bouts of amnesia.

A 12-hour season isn't just closer to the standard for high-end cable dramas, it's an opportunity for "24" to finally cut to the chase.