On '24,' it's always darkest before the dawn

The current batch of "24" (8 p.m., Fox) episodes all take place during the sorrowful break of day. Like the rest of the world, I've been thoroughly broken of my "24" habit by Fox's curious tradition of yanking it from the schedule for months at a time.

For those who have forgotten to keep up, "24" remains knee-deep in intrigue, but somewhere along the way, the creators of this superior series have gone off the deep end. Who said that tense, nail-biting dramas had to be so bleak?

Let's recap. Our hero, Jack Bauer (Keifer Sutherland), is a junkie. Bad guys from several nationalities have threatened to release a deadly virus that promises to kill just about everybody. A vial has been released in a hotel, where a thousand or so trapped guests are going bonkers while waiting to die a slow, messy, agonizing death. The first lady is a murderer and she's just bamboozled the president into covering up for her. But he's got bigger fish to clean -- he's just become the puppet of a mass murderer. And, worst of all, it's 6 o'clock in the morning! Wake me when it's over. Or at least at a decent hour.

Tonight's other highlights

  • The final nine sing to survive on an hourlong "American Idol" (7 p.m., Fox).
  • Nick defends a young boy who has been sexually assaulted on "The Guardian" (8 p.m., CBS).
  • New evidence may spark a new trial on "Judging Amy" (9 p.m., CBS).
  • A D.A. dies in a vice-ridden neighborhood on "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" (9 p.m., NBC).
  • Andy gets an unwelcome transfer on "NYPD Blue" (9 p.m., ABC).
  • Vic chafes under Claudette's rule on "The Shield" (9 p.m., FX).

Late night

Bruce Willis and Renee Askins appear on "Late Show with David Letterman" (10:35 p.m., CBS) ... Jay Leno welcomes Cedric the Entertainer, Nia Vardolos and Nappy Roots on "The Tonight Show" (10:35 p.m., NBC).

Johnny Knoxville, Elisha Cuthbert and The Distillers are booked on "Late Night with Conan O'Brien" (11:35 p.m., NBC) ... The Rock, Robert Klein and Faith Salie appear on "The Late, Late Show with Craig Kilborn" (11:37 p.m., CBS).

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