Keifer Sutherland

All is right again in the TV world, because our favorite Jacks are back on the case: Law & Order's crafty DA Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston), who's running for reelection; and 24's tireless Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland), who's running from retribution when not saving civilization. Both have been known to bend the rules to win.

And both shows have been sorely missed: 24 postponed a year because of the writers' strike, and a rejuvenated Order inexplicably left off the fall lineup but suddenly restored this month to prop up NBC's ailing schedule.

With relative rookies Jeremy Sisto and Anthony Anderson solving the crimes and scrappy Linus Roache leading the prosecution (with Alana de la Garza) and butting heads with his boss, Law & Order rarely feels like a show entering its 19th season.

The series hits its stride this week, as Roache's Michael Cutter risks his career to confront a senile judge (a heartbreaking Ned Beatty). Next week's disturbing episode features Jena Malone as a runaway child bride from a polygamist cult. Law & Order is TV comfort food at its most nutritious.

Whereas 24: Redemption (Sunday, Nov. 23 at 8 pm/ET, Fox), a riveting two-hour prequel to January's seventh season is a shot of pure adrenaline and deluxe action filmmaking. Jack, ducking a federal subpoena, once again plays reluctant hero, the last hope to help evacuate schoolchildren from a violent African coup — with no help from smarmy diplomats or a cartoonishly sniveling U.N. weasel.

Back home, a female president (Cherry Jones, warm yet steely) is sworn in amid the usual helter-skelter of rich villains (Jon Voight) and sinister moles. Once Jack comes back to clean up this mess, wonder if he could rescue our economy? I'd give him an extra day for that.

He's a Fool for Yuletide Merriment
Decked out in cardigan sweater and red turtleneck, channeling Andy Williams by way of early Dan Aykroyd, late-night satirist Stephen Colbert is a bundle of retro irony as he hosts his winking, wacky homage to classic holiday specials.

The applause is canned in A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All! (Sunday, Nov. 23 at 10 pm/ET, Comedy Central), but the laughter at home is likely to be genuine as Colbert welcomes special guests to join him in clever original songs: Elvis Costello, Willie Nelson (as the fourth wise man, warbling "Let not mankind bogart love"), gun-toting Toby Keith taking on "the enemies of Christmas," John Legend as a forest ranger, the angelic Feist and Jon Stewart making a wry appeal for Hanukkah.

Next to my annual appointments with Charlie Brown and the Grinch, I can't think of a better start to holiday season.