CTU good guys back — or are they bad guys?

Tony Almeida looked like he was going to be a bad guy. He turned out to be a good guy. But you never know when he or just about anybody else on "24" could take a turn that might make him a bad guy.And Carlos Bernard, the man who plays Tony, wouldn't have it any other way. "Are you kidding?" he said. "This show is everything an actor could ask for."

And everything viewers could ask for, too. In its first two seasons, "24" became one of the best shows on television.the format keeps viewers on the edge of their seats. Centering on CTU (Counter-Terrorism Unit) agent Jack Bauer (Keifer Sutherland), a season takes place in one particularly eventful 24-hour day; each episode runs (more or less) in real time and, at the end of each hour, there's a cliffhanger.And the stakes are high. Season 1 found Jack fighting to prevent the assassination of presidential candidate Sen. David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert)— a plot that turned out to be a huge conspiracy. In Season 2, he had to stop a nuclear device from detonating in Los Angeles and prevent the overthrow of now-President Palmer. As for Season 3, "I think it's the best setup yet," Bernard said.

(On Tuesday, Fox will air the hourlong season premiere of "24" without commercial interruption.)

The action picks up three years after the end of Season 2. President Palmer, it turns out, survived the assassination attempt in the Season 2 finale — although he's not necessarily fully recovered. He's back in Los Angeles, about to debate his opponent in the upcoming general election. His evil ex-wife isn't around — she's presumably in prison at this point. Although rumor is that Sherry (Penny Johnson-Jerald) might show up later this season. And it's not like the president lacks for female company. . But, as it turns out, L.A. isn't exactly a safe place to be. Jack, it seems, has spent the past year infiltrating a drug lord's organization because of the man's ties to terrorist cells. The drug lord is in prison, but his brother is demanding his release — or he'll release a killer virus into the general population, and in a week, more than a million people will be dead. "I think they've done it again," said Bernard, who, like the other actors, entrusts himself and his character to the whims of the writers. "And they're flying by the seat of their pants. You never know exactly where they're going." (Which is true. In neither of the first two seasons did the writer/producers know where the story was going to end up when they wrote the first episodes.) "How can you not trust them?" Bernard said. "Look what they've given us to this point."

Acting in "24" can be a challenge, however. The actors are given "some general idea" of what's in store for their characters, but they don't really know what to expect until they get each script. And they never know when they might suddenly discover that, yes, they're a bad guy instead of a good guy. Or vice versa.Bernard's character looked for all the world like a bad guy in the early going of Season 1. "But I didn't really think so because that would have been too obvious. But I did start to wonder later in the season if they would circle around after making it look like he was one of the good guys," he said. In Season 2, Tony ended up running CTU and sided consistently with good-guy Jack. He's now firmly in charge of CTU and still seems firmly on the side of Jack, who's running a special field-operations division. "But you never know," Bernard said. "I never know until I see those scripts." Not that he's complaining, by any means. With the exception of Sutherland, most of the "24" stars weren't exactly household names before the show started. But now, "People recognize me all the time," Bernard said. "It's always, 'Hey, Tony!' "

How high has "24" raised his profile? Well, Bernard found himself on People magazine's most-beautiful people list. Albeit somewhat reluctantly. "My publicist called and said, 'You've got to do this.' And she never says that. But I sure heard about it from my friends and my family. They had a great time with that one."

Not that "24" has been perfect by any means. You've got to get past the fact that the possibility of everything that happens on the show actually happens in a single day is wildly unlikely. It's a show that has more than its share of twists, turns and coincidences.

And even fans of the show have found the adventures of Jack's daughter fairly ludicrous — The Perils of Kim, as it were. Last season, in the space of those "24" hours, Kim dealt with a homicidal boss, kidnapping charges, a serious car accident, multiple murders in a convenience store, a cougar, a wacko survivalist and, oh yeah, that nuclear bomb that she thought killed her dad. This season, "She's working for me," Bernard said with a laugh. "We'll see how that works out." Yes, Kim is now a computer expert working for CTU. Which does seem to integrate her into the story more naturally. (Assuming you forget that she's gone from nanny to computer genius in three years.) And she's got a love interest — a CTU field agent, Chase Edmunds (James Badge Dale), who is Jack's protege. Not that Jack is really happy about the relationship. But viewers should be very happy. Bernard was right when he said, "You're in for another great ride."

By Scott D. Pierce