There's a reason Heroes gets first billing over 24 this week in describing Monday's explosive episodes of these head-to-head thrillers. (In one, a man-made bomb went off. In the other, a man WAS the bomb, and he set off a firestorm of plot complications.) Simply put, Heroes blew 24 away in what was easily the freshman fantasy's finest, most sensationally entertaining episode. It was one of those turning-point, game-changing episodes that could launch an already successful show to the top tier of can't-miss TV (a status some bestowed on Heroes even before it hit its recent stride).

Not that 24 was playing dead. But even detonating the bomb in an assassination attempt against President Not-David Palmer wasn't enough to rouse this show from its midday stupor. ( Spoiler alert: According to the previews, it looks like the blast was effective enough to take Wayne out of commission long enough for Vice President Cy Tolliver McEvil to take charge for a while.) What a weird season. It started off with a ferocious and literal bang with the nuke blast in Valencia. But since then, it's been a rocky road of wacky personal reveals about Jack Bauer's twisted family and redundant conspiracy plots to kill the wooden new President Palmer, broken up by dreary happenings in the corridors of CTU. (New drinking game: Chug one down every time anyone questions Morris' competency. Make it two if it's Chloe.)

Still, it was great to see the Emmy-nominated Gregory Itzin back as deposed President Logan, and his performance was perfectly pitched to make us wonder just how deep is his Psalm-spouting commitment to redemption. When he gazed at a photo of him and the former First Lady, was it an expression of longing and love or a wish for revenge? So what if the circumstances of his comeback are nutty? (Wasn't Jack causing havoc at a consulate what landed him in a Chinese prison in the first place?)

Maybe the problem with 24 this season is that it peaked early, with the mushroom-cloud climax of its riveting opening four-hour weekend. Kind of hard to top that, and to shake that off as the show returns to the weekly grind of chasing down elusive international contacts, torturing the truth out of them, letting leads slip away until the next crisis. Been there, chewed my nails over that.

It all feels terribly familiar, and somehow pales when compared (perhaps unfairly) to last season. I just find there to be an unsettling disconnect between the urgency of the nuclear catastrophe and the preposterous exploits of this season's heroes and villains.

I actually found myself empathizing with Morris this week. Challenged repeatedly by Chloe (including in what no doubt will be seen as an historic detour into the men's room; yes, people do find time in 24 to relieve themselves), Morris admits, "Even I know that I shouldn't be here," and says he wishes he could just go home, crawl in bed and forget this day after happened.

I wouldn't go that far. I'm still along for the ride, even if I'm finding most jolts of this year's roller coaster to be something less than satisfying.

Speaking of thrill rides, Heroes finally lived up to its potential with a tightly focused (at last!) hour that gave us powerful insight into the Bennet family, most notably revealing surprising details into HRG's compromised past as a loyal "company" employee and, reluctantly at first, as a devoted father. Superhero kudos to Jack Coleman, who gave a bravura performance, with so many unexpected shadings in his flashback sequences you might have dreamed you were watching a first-season episode of Lost. (Note to Lost producers: This is a reminder of how you go about delivering answers, through character AND action.)

Things I didn't see coming:

- That HRG and Invisible Man Claude were once partners in their more idealistic days of tracking down "heroes" for "the organization."

- That Hiro's dad CEO-Sulu is part of the agency, directly responsible for turning baby Claire over to pre-glasses HRG. How ominous those words: "Don't get too close. You're only her surrogate father. She belongs to us. If she manifests, we'll take her." Do you think he knows what lies under the surface of his little boy Hiro?

- That dad would take a bullet, and let his mind get wiped by the Haitian, to free Claire from the company's clutches. Their farewell scene was the emotional high point of the Heroes season to date.

- And that doesn't even take into account the delicious suspense of radioactive Ted taking the Bennet family hostage, and how crafty HRG was to manipulate mind-reading Matt to pull the wool over Ted's eyes. Great, great stuff. Ted's climactic Altered States meltdown? Terrifying.

And all together now: Ewwww on Eric Roberts, slime personified as HRG's diabolical boss.

Let's hope Heroes can keep this momentum going. Won't be easy, but like Claire's poor addled mom said, now's the time to have faith. And just my luck: Now that I'm finally getting into the show, it's about to go on a long break after next week. Unfair!