Warning: Here be spoilers.
Season 4 picks up 18 months after Season 3. Jack works for the Secretary of Defense, James Heller, and is in a serious relationship with his boss' daughter, Audrey. He was fired from CTU due to the drug addiction problem from the previous season. CTU also has a new director, a woman named Erin Driscoll, who took over after Tony was sent to prison for breaking protocol (and the law) to save his wife, Michelle. And we have a new President, Keeler (and eventually Logan) after Palmer refuses to run again for a second term. But when Heller and his daughter are kidnapped, Jack is forced to help out CTU yet again to get them back... which leads into yet another set of master plans to attack the U.S. There's really only one way to describe this season: Lame.
Let's look at the character stories.
Jack is too... nice... in this season. I mean, right away he starts off in a great mood, loving his life with Audrey and not being at CTU. Not to say I want Jack to be disgruntled and/or depressed the whole season, but there was something about him this season--he was missing his usual edge. Most of it has to do with Audrey, who I'll get to later.
But most of what Jack does in this season feels like it has no real emotional impact. Kim is completely absent from this season, so she's not kidnapped or in any immediate danger. And after the first few episodes, Audrey isn't in any real danger (not like I cared while she was... but again, I'll get to that). There was just no emotional connection to anything he was doing, so his part of the story was boring. And since he's the center of the show, if Jack's story is boring, the whole thing is boring. There's also a torture theme going on, where he (or CTU) are constantly torturing people and with little to no real care about what they were doing.
James Heller and Audrey Raines
There seems to be a common theme going on with introducing a new family in each season. This season we have 2 families, the first of which is James Heller and his two kids, Audrey and Richard (Richard not being all that huge during the bulk of the season, but still mildly important to the story).
Here was my issue with these two main characters: You're introduced to them, given no real emotional connection except that Audrey and Jack are dating and James is his boss, and they are almost immediately kidnapped. Well... so? While they were kidnapped, I couldn't give a crap about either of them, and they bored from "who cares?" to annoying, particularly Heller. However, Heller did become more likable as the season went on; Audrey, on the other hand, went the opposite direction. Once her husband (who she was separated from) returned, she started heading back to him over Jack, which severed whatever care I had for her (I did like Paul--her husband--though. He was a pretty good character, and I liked the relationship he ended up building with Jack).
And after that, Audrey is just... kind of always around, bouncing between meddling in people's affairs at CTU, getting in the way, and whining about everything. And I honestly just did not care about her one bit.
The Araz Family
This is the second major family of this season. Like the previous family, I found it hard to care about most of them, sans one. The plot with this family is that they are connected to the terrorist plot of the season. There's the father, Navi; the mother, Dina; and the son, Behrooz. The father is your typical unwavering, "all for the cause," evil terrorist. In the middle was Dina, who was kind of an interesting character. While all for the cause, she would also do what was necessary to protect her teenage son, Behrooz, even if it included helping CTU and foiling her husband's plans. And then there's just the opposite end of the spectrum: Behrooz. He's really one of the first characters of the season I could actually connect with. He knew what his parents were doing was wrong, didn't want to be a part of it, and eventually tries to get out of it completely. He did have the tendency to get really whiny at times, but at the same time, he was a scared teenager afraid of dying and/or going to prison for the rest of his life. It fit.
The only major problem I had with this family is that, at one point, Behrooz is traded for Jack by the terrorists... and is never seen again! I mean, what the hell happened to him? According to Wikipedia, there is bonus footage on the DVDs that show him getting rescued by CTU, but I would have liked something to be shown on the actual show. It was just an open-ended plot point, and that annoyed me... especially after playing up his character for the bulk of the season.
Unlike other seasons, you pretty much get to know the main villain from close to the beginning. And instead of there being two distinct acts (the show being split into two halves), there are a bunch of mini-acts, as it were, and that got kind of annoying. Marwan himself was a great villain, and his portrayal by Arnold Vosloo was really good. But the character got way too repetitive. For instance, this is pretty much how it went: CTU finds somebody connected with Marwan, interrogates/tortures them, gets a location, sneaks in, gets found out, and chases Marwan. Then something blows up and Marwan escapes. Now multiply this by about 5 or 6 (yeah, it literally happens about 5-6 times) and you have most of Season 4.
Here are all of the mini-acts: We start with the Heller/Audrey kidnapping. Then we have the race to stop nuclear power plants from melting down. Then it starts coming out of nowhere... suddenly there's a guy attempting to steal a stealth jet to shoot down Air Force One. From there, we go to Marwan attempting to steal the nuclear football, which holds all nuclear codes and whatnot for the American arsenal. And then, finally, they steal and launch a nuclear missile. Some of the transitions aren't as fluid as others, but some work (the strangest transition was from nuclear meltdown to stealing of the stealth jet). Overall, it was just like Marwan had a million ideas on how to take down the U.S. and couldn't figure out which one he wanted; meanwhile, they portray it as if it was all one master plan, and it just didn't feel like one. Oh well.
Here's where I started having some other issues with this season. For the first chunk of the season, there are almost no returning characters, save for Jack and Chloe. But even Chloe leaves the show after the first few episodes, her character getting essentially replaced with a guy named Edgar. But Tony and Michelle are no longer at CTU. There's the new Director of Field Ops. There's the new commander guy at Division. Chase isn't back. Hell, even Kim is gone. Let's look through the characters we do get one at a time.
First we're given Erin Driscoll, the new Director of CTU/Field Ops. And she's so annoying. I couldn't stand her. She was just so incompetent at her job, but she acted like she was the be-all, end-all of what to do. We're also, eventually, introduced to her schizophrenic daughter (who is almost equally annoying, but in different ways). Fortunately, we don't have to deal with her for the entire season, as her incompetency at her job is doubled after an issue with her daughter (though the hypocrisy that comes from her actions after how she treated Edgar added to my annoyance of her).
Speaking of, we are also introduced to a new guy in the tech department, Edgar Stiles. I actually really liked Edgar. It took a while for him to grow on me, as he was essentially a male version of Chloe, but with a bit more heart to him. After Chloe leaves the show, his character gets really interesting, as he has to go from incompetent newbie to head-of-show real fast. Unfortunately, his character pretty much peaks soon after the "nuclear plant meltdown" mini-act, and then he starts to get slightly annoying--especially once Chloe comes back in. He does, however, still have some likable moments throughout, and does regain tolerable-ness by the end.
And then there's Chloe, who returned from the previous season. She's actually quite a bit more bearable this season, mostly because we start off with a friend of hers in danger and you get to see her actually care about something. She's given more personality and actual heart, and she's not just a bland, blunt, seemingly uncaring character. She even has some pretty awesome moments this season, like near the end when she's forced to go on a field mission. (And not to skip ahead, but I've watched the first episode of Season 5 as of this writing, and she's even more likable already).
There are a couple other CTU characters introduced, like Marianne, Sarah, and Curtis, but really the only one I cared about was Curtis. Marianne wasn't around very long, and there was just something about Sarah that bugged me. Curtis, on the other hand, was pretty cool, being another regular field agent. But he did have some things about him that bugged me, too (such as his dislike of Tony's eventual return). There was also Bill Buchanan, who took over Chappelle's position, basically. He didn't really evoke feelings from me one way or another. He wasn't an asshole like Chappelle, but he wasn't particularly incompetent at his job like... well... half the people this season. He's just kinda... there.
Finally, there's Tony and Michelle, both of whom come in about halfway through the season (Michelle a little after Tony). It's funny that Tony has essentially become one of my favorite characters, as I couldn't really stand him in Season 1 (then again, I don't think we were supposed to). Sure, he has some personality flaws, but they don't upset me like those of other characters. You can really feel the friendship between him and Jack and the trust that has been built over however many years they've known each other. Michelle, on the other hand, just got on my nerves this season... mostly for how she treated Tony. Yeah, Tony apparently became a drunk bum for a while, but the dude lost his job and went to prison to save her life. And how does she reward him? By leaving him. And on top of that, she treats him like crap when she returns, and then when she's put in a similar situation as he was the previous season? She damn-near acts uppity in the situation... yeah, I really liked her in season 3, especially during the Hotel stuff, but she lost most of my caring this season (which really put a damper on the Season 5 opening).
The Presidents (Keeler/Logan/Palmer)
I never really had strong feelings for President Keeler one way or another, except that I found it strange he was on Air Force One for the majority of the season. At one point he says he'd been flying for 20 hours. Where exactly was he coming from? Did it even say? If it did, I don't think I caught it.
(Vice) President Logan, on the other hand, annoyed the crap out of me. I swear, a theme this season had to be "people incompetent at their jobs," because they were all over the damn place this season. And Logan at the top of that list. And on top of that, he would ask for help, then act superior and unthankful when he got it. And he would bounce between pathetic and needing of help to "I got this, bitch" in the span of 3 seconds... and he did it way too often.
Eventually, Mike Novick, whose giant head makes a triumphant return this season, brings in David Palmer as an adviser to help Logan in his Time of Crisis. Thank God they brought back Palmer, despite it only being in the last 4-5 episodes. He was sorely missed for the majority of the season, having been central to the show for the last 3 seasons (and yes, I was like "Gasp!" at the start of season 5). He's not given too much to do here, but as I said, it was a welcome return to an overall boring and/or lame season.
The season does pick up near the end--but its a too little too late kinda deal. Mandy-The-Hot-Assassin returns yet again, which is part of how the season kind of returns to its old self, as it forces Jack to regain his old personality (since it deals with Tony, as well... somebody he cares about). And there's an almost random Chinese consulate subplot that plays out for the last handful of episodes and leads into Jack's fate and Season 5. And it almost felt tacked on to the main plot like a last minute idea to segue into a plotline for Season 5 (or at least a way to kick off said season). This season had a much different feel from the previous seasons. Ironically, I felt the show held more Republican views of things (such as torture), while the season also gained a Republican President (instead of the Democrat Palmer). There's even a bit of "I'm gay, so you must hate me" in there near the end. But overall, the characters were boring, I only cared about those who were mostly innocent and/or inconsequential (Chloe's friend at the beginning, Behrooz, etc.), and half the cast were annoyingly incompetent at their jobs--with only one really overcoming that obstacle (Edgar). It was an awfully lame season that I probably won't be revisiting... but it is a necessary one, as it sets up Season 5... and from what I've seen so far--one episode--well... damn.