There isn't a whole lot of the history of this show that needs to be explained- season 4 almost functions as a stand-alone season, making it much more accessible for new fans to jump on board. Having been forced out of CTU a year ago, agent Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) has taken a desk job for Defense Secretary James Heller- and has also become romantically involved with Heller's soon-to-be divorced daughter, Audrey Raines. But it doesn't take too long before Jack is back in the action at CTU, forced to work with (well, against might be a better description) the very same administrator who kicked him out.
If seasons 1-3 were like sipping a latte, then season 4 is the equivalent of doing 20 lines of coke and washing it down with a gallon of gin. The plot is by far the most action-packed and fast-paced of the series, with the story rocketing along as Jack and CTU try to thwart multiple attacks from terrorist mastermind Habib Marwan (Arnold Vosloo). Actually, this is something I always wanted the series to try- multiple threats with a centralized villain. Gone are the irrelevant and/or annoying subplots (such as Jack's dim-witted daughter Kim) that sometimes dragged down previous seasons- what you get is a very compelling, streamlined, and breakneck story. The budget was significantly increased; consequently, the production values are the highest they've ever been. You'll notice this by the time you get to the sixth hour- it contains THE best (and by the looks of it, the most expensive) action scene 24 has ever done. But it wasn't just the budget that made the season look so good- much credit has to be given to Jon Cassar, who did an outstanding job as the lead director.
There is perhaps more cohesion among the 24 episodes in season four than in any other and the overall plot, while far-fetched at times, is logically sound. Transitions between hours are seamless- there are no random twists thrown in just to get viewers to "tune in next week." However, one downside is that the real-time premise is largely tossed out the window, and there are quite a few inconsistencies which astute observers may pick up on. Yes, it's true that the real-time format has mostly been a farce since season two, but it's much more noticeable this time around. But these are only minor complaints. Creating a show with 24 episodes like this is a daunting task, so I do give the writers a bit of leeway. I'm not a detail-oriented person and I care more about the bigger picture, so I'd rather have them gloss over minor inconsistencies if it keeps the tension ratcheted up high. The payoff in the long run is much better anyway. For instance, season 3 presented a much more complex story with more intricately planned episodes; however, some rather large plot logic errors coupled with the inability to tie the multiple storylines together left the viewer feeling somewhat disappointed.
Means as I brought season 3 up, another problem with that season was too much reliance on a small cast of characters, particularly the "old" cast from season one. This time, however, the plot is entirely event-driven- the cast is much larger and they are rotated on and off the show when no longer essential to the plot. The beginning hours have an entirely new cast, with the only leftovers being Jack Bauer and the socially inept CTU techie Chloe O'Brien, while the older characters gradually return as the season progresses. Superior casting has always been 24's best aspect, but it especially shines through in this season. Sutherland's portrayal of Jack Bauer is always superb, serving as an anchor to the series and lending it credibility (especially since he doesn't use a stunt double). Sutherland is backed up by an excellent supporting cast that delivers stellar performances: William Devane, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Alberta Watson, Carlos Bernard, and especially Shoreh Aghdashloo. (Why was she snubbed for an Emmy nomination?) What I've always liked about the acting on 24 is that the characters' actions and reactions seem real, not contrived. There is very little melodrama, macho posturing, or hamming it up- the characters don't wear their hearts on their sleeves. Again, I can't possibly convey enough how good the performances are.
Those who write off season four as being a mindless shoot-em-up or the TV equivalent of a Bond flick don't know what they're missing. Jack Bauer is more of a modern-day Sisyphus than a James Bond. Villains antagonize very well- expect to see much violence, death, destruction, and personal loss before the day is over. And the CTU staff is not composed of the clichéd type-A alpha males and females- in fact, it is mostly a quirky assortment of colorful, rounded characters who constantly bicker with each other and frequently screw things up. Speaking of which, one good thing about season four is that it never takes itself too seriously. There is quite a bit of dark humor and even some self-depreciating humor aimed at longtime fans (i.e. the fan phone, Cubs mug, etc.). You can really see that the entire cast and crew are enjoying themselves while filming this season.
For all the years I've watched the show flounder in the ratings, it was nice to see that 24 finally got the mainstream success it deserved. However, when a series with a cult fan base like 24 suddenly becomes popular, you will inevitably see the knee-jerk negative responses from some of the hardcore fans. You are likely to find some reviewers here proclaim that 24 is now "dumbed-down for the masses." Actually, this couldn't be further from the truth. I've always been amazed at the maturity of the writing on 24 compared to other shows and movies. They never insult the viewers' intelligence- some events that occur early on in the day do not play a part until the very end of the season, and there is little expository dialogue to spoon-feed the backstory to viewers. Also, unlike some of the more didactic and pretentious directors out there (i.e. Steven Spielberg), 24 presents its dramatic themes as morally ambiguous, leaving the viewer to decide what's right and wrong.
This is probably a good place to stop, or else this review will come off sounding like the ramblings of a drooling, sycophantic 24 fanboy. (like it hasn't already!) Overall, this is an outstanding season for what is indisputably the best show ever on television. I would rank season four as being the second best season of 24, with season one still being my favorite (and it probably always will be). If your idea of good TV is flavor-of-the-month shows such as "Desperate Housewives," dreck like "CSI" and "The West Wing," or the abomination known as reality TV, check this DVD out. You may be in for a surprise.
Special DVD Features:
-Exclusive Season 5 Prequel Bridging Seasons 4 & 5
-Cast/ Crew Commentary on Selected Episodes
-39 Deleted Scenes with Optional Commentary
-A Behind-the-Scenes Features
-"24: Conspiracy" Cell Phone Mobisodes