Having already seen the first four hours of the new season of “24,” I can tell you without hesitation that it’s absolutely going to be worth your while to tune in when Jack Bauer’s latest day kicks off on January 17th, but, then, if you’re a fan of the show, you’ve probably already had your Sunday night planned out for quite some time now. What you’re likely more interested in knowing is if this will be the last season of “24.” Fortunately, that was the first question posed of Kiefer Sutherland and his fellow executive producer, Howard Gordon, during Fox’s panel for the series.

“We’ve always approached each season, just the task of doing it, as so great that, literally, from the very first season on, we’ve completed that season, and it was really FOX’s decision to pick us up,” said Sutherland. “There’s never been one specific season that the next season was guaranteed or ensured. This has been one of the greatest gifts of my life, the ability to do ’24.’ So for me, yeah, it’s something that is absolutely open. I’ve always said that as long as people wanted us to make it, and people were really interested in watching it, I would be interested. There’s a lot of components involved. The task of writing it is far greater than the task of acting in it, so Howard can talk about that for a moment, but certainly, it’s always open to continue on doing it.”

“I sort of second Kiefer’s thoughts about it,” said Gordon. “It’s always been a very year-to-year, minute-to-minute, day-to-day experience. There’s the intellectual and sort of emotional and creative curiosity. The writers sit around, and in the margins of the time when we aren’t working on Season 8 we do ask ourselves, ‘What if…?’ So it certainly is a possibility.”

So there you go: now you can safely enjoy the new season without feeling a sense of dread that they’re entering it with feelings of finality. We’ll get back to Messrs. Sutherland and Howard in a bit, but with that bit of pressing information out of the way, let’s check in to see what some of the other “24” folks are thinking about as they prepare for the premiere…

Cherry Jones was asked how she feels about her character now that she’s had a year to consider some of President Taylor’s executive decisions. “I thought some of them showed extreme sleep deprivation there towards the end, in terms of chiefs of staff and that sort of thing,” she replied, with a smile. “I thought she was kind of brilliant and incredibly pragmatic. When you play a part, you get behind it and you try to figure out why and how, and there was very little that Howard and the boys scripted that I had any trouble fulfilling…including sending my child off to prison! So I loved playing her last season. In each episode, I was always thrilled when I’d see that first script, and with each step, I thought she was incredibly pragmatic…but that’s just my own personal take.”

One of the funniest responses during the panel came when it was suggested to Sutherland that, as the new season kicks off, Chloe seems to be painted slightly out of character. While I know you haven’t seen it yet as of this writing, I’ll tell you that, at least from my perspective, the accusation strikes me as a fair cop: for someone who’s been so techno-savvy throughout the run of the series, you wouldn’t expect her to be so flummoxed by the changes that have gone on since the last time she was in the office. Before Sutherland could even begin to consider a response, however, the woman who plays Chloe – Mary Lynn Rajskub – practically leapt out of her chair in an attempt to defend herself.

“Is it so hard to believe that a woman wants to be a mother to her child?” she demanded to know, earning much laughter from the audience. “And maybe take her nose out of a book every once in a while? Take a break from the labyrinth of genius that inhabits her brain? And that the world, you know, actually goes on without me, technically?”

Finally, Rajskub took a breath.

“Sorry, I was just really enjoying myself there,” she said, grinning. “I have been at home with the child, and when I get back, all the protocols have changed…you know, whatever a protocol is. I’m kidding: of course I know precisely what it is. But that was actually really a fun place to start. It’s fun to sort of start from an opposite place. And I do think that it’s believable that a place would change its systems enough, because technology moves at a breakneck speed…as does Hollywood.”

On a related note, you’ve probably seen the previews or, failing that, read some of the articles that have been emerging about the new season which indicate that, as things kick off, Jack Bauer is somewhere he’s never been before: in a good place. Obviously, it wouldn’t be much of a season if it stayed that way, so you know it’s not going to last.

“It’s a guarantee that he’s going to have a bad day,” said Sutherland, with a smile. “You have to realize that you’re going to have to work within that place. What Howard and the other writers did, which was such a fantastic thing for me as an actor, was they put Jack in such a positive place at the very beginning of this series that it gave him something to fight for. I think just inherently we have taken the character in some very dark places – the loss of his wife, the estrangement from his daughter, the death of Kim Raver’s character – and one of the great things as an actor is to be able to take all those kind of tragedies and mount those as part of the character for the following season. So to be able to start Season 8 with some kind of hope and give him something to really live for and fight for was a really different and kind of very exciting place to be as a character, and that really resonates. As much as you kind of acknowledge it in the very beginning, it really has some resonance throughout the later episodes.”

It has to be asked, though: didn’t it feel weird to smile?

“I must say, when we first shot it, it felt awkward for me…and I think everybody else involved,” said Sutherland. “The only time Jack Bauer smiled – and just because it happened so rarely, we noted it – was in Season 3, when he had captured Nina and was flying back with her on the cargo plane and he had her in handcuffs, he looked at her and smiled.”

“That,” he added, “was about four episodes before he got to shoot her.”

Katee Sackhoff addressed how quickly she latched onto her character on the series. “I think that Dana is kind of the closest that I’ve ever played to myself, actually,” she said. “You know, I came onto this show, it was written that she’s a computer analyst, and I embrace that every fiber of my being. And every little turn, it just seems to get more interesting. You know, she has a past. I keep saying that, and everyone is like, ‘Oh, she has a past. Is it bad?’ And I’m like, ‘No. She raised show ponies in Kentucky. Yes, it’s bad. It’s ’24’! I mean, come on, it’s not going to be cotton candy and white and fluffy!”

Freddie Prinze, Jr., seemed to be equally excited about his new gig on the show, scoffing at a writer’s use of the phrase “kind of pleased” to describe his feelings on the matter because it didn’t come anywhere close to encompassing what he was going through.

“I received the sides for this part when I was in New York, and they were casting out of L.A.,” he explained. “I went to the casting director’s office, and there were no other actors there. When they brought me in, I said, ‘Look, you’re not waiting for anyone else to get in here, so we’re doing this audition ’til I get it right.’ And she was nice enough to let me get a few cracks at it…and I sent her a big box of cookies when I got the part. I mean, I don’t get offered this kind of a job, period. You know, for most of my career, if I’m in it, I’m struggling to fall in love for 96 minutes, and I always get the girl. And to get a chance to do this is something, as an actor, that you ready yourself for for…well, since I was 21 years old. So, yeah, I was very, very excited.”

And, lastly, I just have to close with Kiefer’s response to the question about whether or not he now gets preferential treatment at the airport because of the character he’s played for the last eight years:

“No, honestly, going through the airport security thing, I get in the same line as everybody else and go through the same search as everybody else,” he said. “They probably talk to me a little more than the other passengers, but that’s about it. You know, I think people make a joke more than anything. I’ve always been shocked that people that actually I’m flying with say, ‘Oh, I feel safer on the plane.’ I’m thinking, ‘You must not watch the show because everybody around me gets killed!'”