On the one hand, this season finally gets it right by the numbers, for the first time since the first season. The writing is decent, the pacing is crisp at its slowest and breakneck at the fastest, the acting and direction both reasonably solid. The story, while utterly implausible, flows from crisis to crisis brilliantly as our heroes fight a terrorist bad guy worthy of James Bond. They are constantly under the gun, keeping hope alive through a combination of skill, luck and ruthlessness. (Mostly ruthlessness.)
They get a lot of character choices right. They drop Jack's annoying daughter entirely. They replace her with a theme, about the relationships between fathers and sons. (They don't really have a clear message about it, but the three pairs who show up make an interesting contrast.) They retain the annoying programmer Chloe, but manage to make her a good deal more human -- she's not quite right in the head, but she manages to be just about the most competent person on the show. This really isn't a story about people doing stupid things -- rather, it's the classic battle against a very determined, smart, evil mastermind.
Who is, of course, a Muslim terrorist. And that's the disturbing part about this season: while it is not overtly political, the underlying messages couldn't be more right-wing if FOX had gone to the writers and said, "Our base is mostly Republican, so let's write a season that this administration would be proud of." (Which, for all I know, they might have done.)
Those messages are implicit, mind: there's no bashing you over the head with them, not even much speechifying. But let's consider some of the things that show up in the course of the season:
- CTU (the LA Counter-Terrorism Unit, who have always been the protagonists of the story) use torture in this story. Oh, they agonize about it each time, but they do it again and again and again. Not only do they torture terrorists, they torture explicitly innocent American citizens. Each time, mind, it eventually proves to have been absolutely necessary to avert the increasingly apocalyptic crisis.
- Just for good measure, while they're justifying torture, they also denigrate international law. In the course of the story, it becomes necessary to violate an international embassy, because the other country isn't moving fast enough. This doesn't go well, and an international incident does ensue, so the agents of the other country are made even more ruthless and despicable than our guys, to make clear that they were the bad guys here.
- Necessity is a constant mantra in this story; so is strength. There is only one clear sin here, and that is being wishy-washy. This becomes clear about halfway through, when the Man in Charge winds up being someone who can't make the hard decisions -- he winds up having to call in people stronger than him, and delegates all decision-making to them under the guise of "advice". And then, for good measure, he turns out to secretly be treacherous scum. And of course, our hero Jack is very explicitly painted as the man who is wrecking his own life with the despicable decision he makes, but is the hero precisely because he is always willing to do What Needs To Be Done.
- The initial image of this story is heinous: the initial bad guys turn out to be the Nice Muslim Family Next Door, who prove to be plotting to destroy the country. This one was so bad that, about eight episodes in, they had to insert a PSA talking about the fact that most Muslims are really nice people who don't eat babies; I can only imagine how much heat FOX must have gotten.
- Just to make sure they are even-handed in offense, the weakest person on the show, who innocently sparked the whole debacle through simply being dissolute, turns out to be gay. Not for any particularly strong reason, just to be shocking. He's not painted as evil -- just foolish, weak and pitiful.
So -- to recommend, or not? I can't deny that it's a fun ride, if you like action thrillers. Not deep, by any means, but well-told brain candy. But I can only recommend it if you're prepared to spend a little effort deconstructing it as you go. It is trying to teach you lessons, and they aren't ones I approve of much. Guard your brain around this stuff...