'Can I do it myself?' 'Ok.' 'I can't do it.'

TV Where do I start talking about the third season of 24? With the usual spoiler warnings that if you haven't seen the series you really should stop reading now because even more then what has gone before this turns everything upside down. Have they gone? Good. Let's begin.

With Sky resting the rights from the BBC, many of the fans who enjoyed the show but are without a dish will be seeing it first on dvd. Unless they exhibit mythical self control this means they won't be watching the show in the usual format of an episode a week. For me, this situation meant two things. That I didn't have the week's anticipation between cliffhanger and resolution so important to the success of the first two series and secondly the loss of the all important Pure 24 a magazine show which ran on the BBC after each episode of the second series, with all the added speculation and Tamsin Sylvester. It felt like a gap which couldn't be filled. Who can forget the interview with the guy who played Reza which managed to not refer to the character being killed off the following week and the videotaped apology. And Stefan Dennis turning up on the telephone to greet Jim Dale as Jim Robinson from Neighbours became the Vice President of the USA.

So where does this leave series three. Does the series still work even with the lack of anticipation between episode. Oh yes. As long as you change your perception of it being a weekly series to a but-clenchingly long film split into twenty-four segments. Watching it as intensively as I did (eight episodes one night, four every other) works wonders because the tension builds and builds, helped by an extraordinary attention to continuity in acting and writing from episode to episodes. It's all still bonkers and highly ludicrous, but in a brilliant way. Throughout there are knowing winks to the audience effectively saying 'if you think this is funky, wait'll you see what else we're going to do...'

That said everything does get off to an inevitably slow start. For some reason those first few episodes don't quite gel despite Jack's drug problem and the start of the virus plot. Perhaps it's that the teenagers at the centre are all so terribly unengaging, that a reset switch is effectively turned on the president's cliffhanger or that there isn't the same kind of stand out moment as the plane crash in the first season or the 'I need a hacksaw...' in series two. But then Jack decides to bust Salazar from jail, the Russian roulette scene engages and we're back in there.

If there is a weakness throughout it's that the president's subplot doesn't really work as well with the Bauer story this time around. Taken in itself it's of course an attempt create a kind of Shakespearean tragedy as the most powerful man in the world takes some very bad advice at all the wrong times but it feels like a distraction from the main story especially when it intrudes as the crisis tightens. It's not that there is anything wrong with the performances, or the writing of the scenes, it's just that the viewer keeps expecting the two to dovetail somehow but they never do, except now and then in thematic terms. It did offer the spectacle of a pseudo-Buffyverse re-union as D.B. Woodside (Principal Wood from Buffy) is revealed to have been having an affair with Gina Torres (Jasmine in Angel, Zoe in Firefly).

The main virus plot as it meanders on is probably as strong as the nuclear bombs and assassination attempts. At least this time it's the point of the series and provides the one constant throughout. It's also cleverly the place that most of the emotional subplots hang out. The Kim Bauer gets kidnapped again / chased by a cougar / her mum gets amnesia stuff of the past as filler goes out of the window in favour of fall out from Jack's undercover work, the virus being released in the wrong places and tensions with CTU. Granted, there is some repetition (He's a traitor / no he isn't / yes, but *he* is ...) but in the main it all hangs together very well.

Of the new characters, Chase comes off as a bit blank for me - although the trainee Jack angle was a bit interesting. The Salazars seemed to have walked in from a Roberto Rodriguez film, but I was sorry to see Claudio go out. It might have been nice to see Bauer introducing her to his daughter. The afformentioned but not actually mentioned before in the series Presidential brother felt like a Sherry replacement until the real one appeared at which time he felt redundant.

But you know who saved the series? Chloe, played by Mary Lynn Rajskub, the George Mason of this series. She's apparently deeply unpopular with fans. Why? She turns the blandest of scenes into yak fests as she strides through CTU with the same kind of grumpiness most of us have in an office job were everyone takes us for granted. Time after time Tony, Adam or whoever are fishing around a problem trying to get their computer to work and there's Chloe rolling her eyes her expression saying 'You idiots...' If she'd been having Kim's day in series two she would have attacked the cougar and probably gone off and diffused the bomb herself because it was pissing her off. The producers have chosen her as one of the few elements or characters they're carrying over to the fourth series. Good.

Don't believe the doubters. Watched over a much shorter timeframe, series three of 24 is just as good and much more coherent that previous series. The main difference is that it's subtler and takes the time to build up to the big dumb twists and shocking moments. You have to love any show which is willing to kill off favourite characters in order to keep the tension motoring along, throwing caution to the wind with such wanton abandon. I mean how many times have you seen a major character have a limb hacked off in order to help save the day?

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