For those who don't follow it, the high concept of 24 is that each season takes place in "realtime" -- 24 episodes, back to back, representing 24 hours of an improbably busy day. It centers on Jack Bauer, one of the chief agents for the Counter-Terrorism Unit in LA.
This season picks up three years after season 2 left off, which I believe was a wise choice. Since the series can't really move things forward much in the course of a season, this gap allows a number of course corrections in the characters, almost all for the better.
The main characters are all well-drawn this season. Jack has been withdrawing into a shell of bitterness after the events of the first two seasons. His daughter Kim has grown up quite a bit; I was pleased to find that she isn't actually irritating this season. (Unfortunately, they added a new character, Chloe, who is more annoying than Kim ever was.) Jack's new partner Chase is a fine foil for him, a mirror of Jack in his young and idealistic days.
The real strength of the cast, though, turns out to be Tony and Michelle, secondary characters in the first two seasons who IMO take center stage this time. They've now been married for a couple of years, and things are tough for them. Just as Season 1 was the worst day of Jack's life, Season 3 is the worst day of theirs. As far as I'm concerned, theirs is the primary arc of the story, which shows two good people trying desperately to hold it together, being forced to make impossible choices. Really, by the end of this season I have pretty much concluded that Michelle is my favorite character in the story: tough and smart without being either unrealistic or brittle.
Unfortunately, the strength of the character writing is not supported by similar strength on the plot side. As is normal for this series, the level of coincidence is very, very high, especially in the second half of the season. The plot takes a number of improbable turns, and loose threads are scattered hither and yon throughout. I talk about these more in the spoiler section below, but suffice it to say that, while this is a good white-knuckle ride, you do have to turn off your brain a fair amount.
Whilst all of this is going on, the B plot of President David Palmer is unfolding in the background. Where the A plot is loud and implausible, the B plot is quiet and painfully realistic. Oh, the timescale is ludicrously compressed, of course, but the high concept is basically classic Greek Tragedy. Palmer has, throughout the story, been an unshakeably good man, combining a clear moral viewpoint with steely pride. So this season is the inevitable fall, as decisions made from a mix of hubris and convenience lead to inevitable consequences. It's an honest (if a bit melodramatic) story of how political careers end, and why coverups are always the worst risk in politics.
Throughout, the bad guys aren't nearly as well-written as the good ones, I'm afraid. In the A plot, there are four principal villains. Three are basically cardboard cutouts: mildly interesting, but with no real depth. The fourth has great potential, but it's never realized -- he's left as something of a cipher throughout. The only villain who really shines is the same one who has done so throughout the series: Sherry Palmer, who is in full-bore Lady Macbeth mode in this season. Her subtly sociopathic nature is at turns chilling and sad -- you wind up hissing her, but there are moments when I couldn't help but feel sorry for her anyway. This is a woman whose desperation to be important winds up destroying everything she touches.
The biggest problem with the season is that it can't quite decide whether it's a chapter or a story. The plot holes could just barely be explained away if there was a larger story happening behind them, to be resolved in later seasons; however, this season stubbornly resisted that explanation, repeatedly insisting that what we see is all there is. That's a pity, because it means that I can't really forgive the flaws.
Final opinion? As a set of character studies it's delightful, well above television average. The writing is good, if not great. As a plot it's pretty dreadful, although engrossing if you don't think about it too much. Since I care more about character writing, I give it a B-, but that's with the explicit caveat that if you can't forgive the plot problems, you're much less likely to enjoy it...
Now, on to a few particular complaints. Spoilers are rife for the rest of this; consider yourself warned.
This story was strangely willing to leave loose plot threads all over the place, both old and new. The first one comes at the very start of the season, in that they really never deal with the assassination attempt on Palmer at the end of Season 2; indeed, they never indicate that anyone has even realized that it *was* an assassination attempt. That's a pity, because the apparent biological attack there could have been very effectively tied into the major attack that made up the main plot of this season. I was sure that the two would wind up connected, and that Palmer would turn out to be immune to the virus here because of his previous exposure. But nothing was ever made of it; after the first hour or two, Palmer's health issues got largely dropped.
Another opportunity missed: there is a critical confrontation between Jack and Nina, which for all the world appears to have Nina attempting to find *something* in the room where she murdered Jack's wife. I was sure that there was something significant happening there, but it was never explored: Jack kills Nina, and that's that. It's a horribly unfulfilling end to a thread that's been running since the beginning of the series. There is a very brief interrogation in which it looks like he might get into trouble for killing her without sufficient cause (which he has clearly done), but again it simply gets dropped. Indeed, Jack manages to leave a remarkably bloody trail behind him throughout this season.
This season added a couple of new threads of its own that also got lost in the shuffle. A key plot in the early hours is that Jack has gotten himself addicted to heroin as part of his recent undercover work. That's a huge deal for the first eight hours, then gets largely forgotten. That's terribly unrealistic: you can't just forget that you're in the middle of heroin withdrawal. Granted, at the end of the season it's quite clear that Jack is on the knife-edge of a nervous breakdown, but it's not really the same thing.
More subtle threads are lost throughout, as the main focus moves away from them. A huge deal is made about the potential for a massive viral outbreak in LA, and that largely takes over the story for a while, but it gets pretty much drowned out by the rest of the plot -- the last we hear about it is hours before the end, with everyone worrying about whether it's possible to quarantine the virus enough. Again, it's reasonable to believe that they can (the characteristics of this particular virus mean that, while it's horrifically deadly, it's also exceptionally easy to contain), but it would have been nice to at least get a token acknowledgement of that fact.
In the previous seasons, the A and B plots were at least somewhat intertwined. This time, they were *entirely* disjoint. That made for a much more realistic story; indeed, it's probably largely responsible for the fact that the B plot worked as well as it did. But it felt oddly like watching two unrelated stories that just happened to have the main characters phoning each other regularly. As *a* story, it was a weakness, I'm afraid.
Worst of all, though, is the sheer scale of the attack here. The primary plot here is enormous -- it would conservatively cost at least $20 million to bring off as shown, and I suspect a good deal more than that. I mean, the bad guy has a fairly large army at his command, plus extremely sophisticated technology and a lot of equipment. But he's supposed to be an MIA secret agent, who has been rogue and in hiding for years, and they are very insistent that he's doing this on his own. Where does the money and organization come from? It simply makes no sense. This is why it irritates the hell out of me that they chose to try to make the story standalone. As part of a larger tapestry, it might be just barely plausible. As a tableau on its own, it's preposterous.
All of these complaints are why I have to impose so many reservations on recommending the season. It's a pity, because it has much going for it, but they completely failed to step back, look at the whole story, and ask, "Does this make sense?"...