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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Television thriller "24" returns for an 8th season on Sunday to find agent Jack Bauer playing with his grand-daughter, preparing for a quieter life with what's left of his family -- and smiling for only the second time in the award-winning Fox series.
But not for long. Within minutes Bauer, played by Kiefer Sutherland, is unwillingly drawn back into action when America calls on him to help foil a plot to assassinate a Middle Eastern peace-keeping leader.
Set in New York, "Day Eight" of "24" seems again to chime politically with dangerous times, even though producers say that is not the show's primary mission.
"It does seems to create a resonance," executive producer Howard Gordon told TV reporters on Monday. "But I think first and last we are putting on an exciting TV show."
The precise nationality of the Middle Eastern leader featured in the new season, and played by "Slumdog Millionaire" actor Anil Kapoor, is deliberately left vague.
"When you begin to name countries you start getting into very tricky territory. It is after all a fantasy adventure show," Gordon said.
Returning to the cast this year are Cherry Jones, playing President Allison Taylor, Mary Lynn Rajskub as Chloe O'Brian and Annie Wersching as Renee Walker.
Sutherland said he was surprised how much "24" had ingrained itself in global popular culture.
"It has really connected with people around the world," he said. "The fact that it has actually aligned with things in the news caught us off guard (at first). But Jack Bauer is actually doing something, and I think that alleviates a lot of the stress that people feel on an everyday level."
And that rare broad smile in the relaxed opening scenes? "It felt good to do it!", the actor said, saying the only other time Bauer had smiled was in Season 3.
Asked whether Season 8 would be the last, Sutherland, who is also an executive producer, described his role as "one of the biggest gifts of my life" and said he hoped to continue with "24", "as long as people are interested in watching us."
But sometimes the public can over-identify with his action hero persona.
"I've always been shocked when people I am flying with say they feel safer on the plane," he said.