This summer, I watched seasons 1-6 of 24 on DVD. It was a fun experience. I'm now going to rank the seven seasons and offer some thoughts on each one. These will have some spoilers, so be warned about that if you ever plan on digging back into the series. My goal is to look at each season individually and not use some kind of penalty for being later chronologically. I don't want to penalize a season for copying ideas of a previous one. It's more about execution.
1. Season 5 - This season, for me, was probably the quintessential season of this show and always will be. The beauty of this season was something that Season 1 couldn't have done - it used the prior history of the show to its advantage, but still broke new ground. The real treat of this season was Gregory Itzin's Charles Logan character, who has got to be one of the best "love to hate" characters of all time. Even throwing out the Logan-is-evil reveal twist that showed up two-thirds of the way in, having someone in the Oval Office who's weak and indecisive was such an interesting change from perfect David Palmer. Most of the show's best characters appeared in this season at least in some capacity. And while I think Season 1 was the best at giving Jack something real to fight for, I think this one also nailed it to an only slightly lesser extent - he was trying to find justice for the deaths of close friends. Great stuff.
2. Season 1 - Probably the best season at giving Jack some real stakes to go for - a direct threat to his family. Nina as a mole was one of the biggest shockers I can remember in 24, and I certainly liked it better than, say, Tony's triple- or quadruple-agency in season 7. Perhaps I just got desensitized to the big twists as the show progressed, though. It was also probably the most tightly constructed season; there was not very much about this day that felt entirely extraneous, though perhaps it started to head in that direction toward the end with Teri's amnesia, etc.
3. Season 3 - I think I probably rank this season higher than most people do. I haven't read a ton of discussion on 24 but one negative thread I seem to pick up about this season is how extraneous the early episodes are, with a series of several false alarm versions of the virus out there. I guess looking back on it academically I can see that point of view, but seeing the show for the first time, it didn't feel that way. I'd rather the red herrings come at the beginning than at the end, when you can kind of tell that they're just spinning wheels trying to run out the clock. This day also produced several of the show's most emotionally charged individual moments for me. Michelle holding together a hotel full of virus-stricken people and Chappelle's death come to mind immediately. I also think the villains in this season had a little more to them than in many other seasons, both Ramon Salazar and Stephen Saunders.
4. Season 7 - It's the most recent 24 season chronologically, but it was the first one I saw. The season that I have to compare this to is Season 4, because both were reset buttons on some level, attempts to inject a whole new support system of characters. I think this was the more successful effort on that front. Cherry Jones' president was well done, and I liked the FBI of Season 7, especially Renee Walker and Larry Moss, a lot better than the forgettable CTU newbies of season 4. I also thought there were more memorable moments - Renee being buried alive, the two-part siege of the White House - than in the comparable Season 4. The season kind of struggled to the finish, but the first half or so of the season was one of the better opening halves in 24 history, I think.
5. Season 4 -As said above, I think this and Season 7 were pretty similar, but I think 7 was just a more enjoyable ride. It was a nice idea to center an entire season around one villain (even if the number of "backup plans" he seemed to have was ridiculous) but the problem was that the villain, Habib Marwan, was a non-entity. Ms. Driscoll and Sarah were two of the CTU newbies who were gone right around the midpoint of the season so that, essentially, all the guys from the first 3 seasons could come back. Not a great referendum on the creative revamp. It got more interesting down the stretch with the return of Palmer and the introduction of Charles Logan, but the Logan stuff was realized even more in Season 5.
6. Season 6 - Well, I'm trying not to penalize a season for copying previous seasons' ideas, and this would be the one that would get the most penalty. Lots and lots of stuff from previous seasons, and truckloads of "personal stuff" filler to boot. Much like season 2, the show lost a step after the major threat of the season was neutralized with about 8 episodes to go, though I do think this one was a little more interesting down the stretch than Season 2. Nadia Yassir was supposed to be the center of a love triangle but was a complete non-entity. Even Chloe seemed to lose some of her sharpness in this season. Morris O'Brian had his moments but for the most part it was probably the least entertaining of Jack's "support systems."
7. Season 2 -I'm being harder on this season than almost anyone I've seen. Season 2 is at the bottom of my list for being such a blatant copy of Season 1. Now, as I've said, I don't want to penalize the season for that alone, but the reason it's such an issue here is that it was such a disaster. Keeping Kim Bauer on in some kind of completely extraneous action storyline was just a horrible, horrible decision, and one of the few storylines in the seven years of this show when I literally rolled my eyes almost every time I knew we were going there. There were some good things about this season, but that trumps pretty much all of them, especially when combined with the completely bland villains, the total lack of interest after the bomb threat was gone, and the patently ridiculous attempt to oust David Palmer from office. Even Mike Novick, a favorite in other seasons, sucked this time around. This was the only season where I really didn't feel like getting into the next one after I finished it. I will say, in this season's defense, that I didn't see Marie Warner as a baddie coming at all. Good twist.
OVERALL, I thought 24 has been a very entertaining series over the years. I usually watched two episodes a night unless I had something else to do, and generally it was something that I would look forward to during the day. Is it great TV? I think it's capable of really great moments, and I think Season 5 and maybe 1 were very good TV looking at the whole, but still it's not something that I'd put on a level with Lost, which I consider to really be the gold standard for genre television. This experience has definitely ramped up my anticipation for season 8, though, just like watching the first two seasons of The Office (I only started in early season 3) really ramped up my week-to-week desire for a new episode. Guess that's a sign of a good series.