NEW YORK – Of all the hardship and punishment suffered by counter-terrorist agent Jack Bauer, none could match the indignity awaiting him.

Monday night, he must conclude his “24” career in the shadow of another series finale airing the night before — the feverishly hyped and anticipated “Lost.”

During the “24” two hours (which span from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. in New York City), Jack continues his campaign of retribution against the Russian officials who killed his girlfriend, while he exposes an about-to-be-signed global peace treaty for the fraud it is.

He must polish off these chores before the forces mobilized by the president of the United States and a corrupt former chief executive track him down. To make matters worse, he’s bleeding from a knife wound and he hasn’t had a break since 4 p.m. the day before.

Such are the challenges routinely faced by Bauer each season on “24,” which, starring Kiefer Sutherland, has unleashed eight save-our-nation missions, each at a real-time, adrenalized pace that, at its best, leaves even the audience out of breath.

But Monday’s series end (airing on Fox from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m.) not only finds Jack in the midst of twisted international diplomacy, but also lands him in the fog of a “Lost” hangover.

Was there no way Fox could have done right by “24” and given it a send-off when the zeitgeist won’t be buzzing with day-after “Lost” debate?

That said, the “24” conclusion is excellent, a must-see for anyone who ever thrilled to this ambitious action drama.

It retains the series’ kinetic style, of course.

Jack has lately been pushed to the limit and beyond. now he’s a killing machine as he slaughters his way up the Russian hierarchy to eliminate everyone who had a role in murdering his girlfriend, Renee Walker (Annie Wersching), a former FBI special agent who once worked undercover against the Russians.

It seems complicity rises all the way to Russian president Yuri Suvarov (Nick Jameson). Jack’s gunning for him.

Suvarov is scheduled in New York to sign a Mideast peace accord with U.S. President Allison Taylor (Cherry Jones), whose zeal to see the treaty a success has compelled her to help cover up numerous vile acts by the Russians that could scuttle the agreement.

Taylor’s moral dilemma has been exploited by former President Charles Logan (Gregory Itzin), a pompous, swivel-headed opportunist who’s a party to the Russian-driven carnage.

Can Jack flush out all the evil elements in time? Not if Logan has anything to do with it.

“As long as Jack Bauer is out there, the agreement will never be safe,” Logan says to President Taylor, egging her on to accept Jack’s swift disposal. “He will claw his way back from the ends of the Earth, unless we stop him before that can happen.”

The once upright Taylor, though terribly conflicted, doesn’t protest.

A scene like this, with pros such as Jones and Itzin, brings something to “24” that doesn’t often get the highest priority: solid acting and dialogue.

And even Sutherland, whose truly affecting dramatic moments during the series’ run could be counted on two hands, scores a couple of nice scenes where he gets to speak, and not just bark orders and shoot.

“These people need to be stopped, they need to be held accountable. They brought this on themselves,” he tells his loyal counter-terrorist ally Chloe O’Brian (Mary Lynn Rajskub), who has risked her life to try to stop his rampage. “I’m going to finish what I started.”

“You’re going to start a war because you lost someone?”

“This isn’t about me,” he says.

Maybe it isn’t.

“Lasting peace cannot simply be political,” Jack declares in a video he means to leave behind to nail the wrongdoers if he doesn’t survive. “It must be born out of trust and honesty and understanding and, most important, a will on both sides to move forward. Currently, that will does not exist, and this peace is fraudulent.”

Jack, who for so long was forced to rely on high-tech derring-do to keep the nation safe, has clearly learned to use his words.

With talk of a “24” movie afoot, there’s no reason to believe fans won’t see Jack Bauer again. But for now, as the digital readout on the screen pounds down to zeros, the “24” series ends with power and grace.


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