The sixth season of "24" was a universal disappointment. After starting off with a bang, the story devolved into a ridiculous exploration of Jack Bauer's evil extended family. That season stands as the most potent example of why Howard Gordon's preferred method of writing the show (by the seat of their pants) does not work.
Of course, that evidence had been on display since the second season. While the writers were able to power through for a few seasons while constantly under the gun, each new season had been an exercise in frustration. Stories with an intriguing philosophical underpinning would quickly fall into an "anything goes" pattern by end of each season. Even the much-lauded fifth season falls apart under close inspection. (I still don't understand the acclaim.)
The writers' strike of 2008 forced "24" to take a year off, and that time also gave the producers time to reflect on the mistakes of the sixth season. The solution was fairly obvious: plan out the season ahead of the game, so the writers know what to work towards when they break the episodes. With several episodes already in the can, they had the beginning of the story readily available. All they had to do was develop an arc that would hold true to the existing material.
This renewed focus on storytelling yielded the most consistent season of "24" yet, and one of the best in years. The main improvement was the decision to delve into some of the philosophical elements of the premise throughout the season, from the initial Senate subcommittee hearings to Tony's explanation for his actions. Where previous seasons faltered, the seventh season excelled.
Those elements concerned the methods employed in counter-terrorism, and how much coercion was enough or too much. The case made within the context of the series is simply this: because torture has been shown to be an effective technique in the world of "24", operatives like Jack Bauer and organizations like CTU provide a necessary service.
I mentioned, in my comments on the sixth season, that the fourth, fifth, and sixth seasons represented a process of stripping everything away from Jack. From the prequel film "Redemption" through the course of this season, everything was designed to set the stage for Jack's restoration. Even his slow decline and close approach to death at the end of the season fits the standard arc of the hero's journey.
Given the success of the more thoughtful writing process, it may seem odd that the seventh season Critical Myth Rating is only 7.4. There are a few reasons for that. The first is perhaps the most subtle. The show was amazingly consistent this season, but that's part of the problem. That consistency prevented the lows, but it also limited the highs. Beyond the assault on the White House, the highlight of the season, the material varied between average transitional fare and above average action.
A few character choices held the season back as well, though not as much as in previous seasons. Tony's motivations became clear in the finale, but during the season, they were a bit of a confused mess. Even in the end, it's hard to reconcile all of his actions. Olivia Taylor, the president's daughter, was brought in as acting Chief of Staff in what can kindly be called an ill-advised plot twist. And some elements of the torture debate, as such the confrontation with the Imam, were just plain ham-fisted.
That said, the writing staff for the eighth season has already been working hard on the next season arc, and production has already begun. That should afford everyone involved plenty of time to make adjustments where needed (as they did with the seventh season) and construct an even better season.