For anyone even vaguely attuned to the chaotic transfer of power threatening to turn the United States government into a mercurial autocracy, every non-political conversation over the past four months has constituted an attempt to avoid talking about Trump. And yet, what with hastily scrawled executive orders placing bars over our borders and our impetuous tweeter-in-chief delivering bizarre, unpredictable screeds via social media, it’s almost impossible not to discuss the seemingly existential threat his administration poses to all areas of American life.
Trump has made no secret of his disdain for most marginalized populations within the United States, but it’s been particularly striking in recent weeks to witness his administration’s inchoate war against the entire religion of Islam. His so-called “Muslim Ban,” a violent and confusing attempt to restrict immigration that more closely resembles a brutish form of religious persecution, has made it terrifyingly clear that vigorous Islamophobes are now in possession of the nuclear codes.
When Fox commissioned 24: Legacy, it could not have known that the series would be premiering in Trump’s America. And yet nothing exists in a vacuum, and the shockwaves his election has sent across Western civilization will have an undeniable influence on art that comes in its aftermath. In this series’ case, what lingers in the mind is an increasingly inexcusable 24 trope that Legacy leans on in full force: the gross and dangerous demonization of Muslims as murderous terrorists.
To wit, the show (four episodes of which were provided for review) opens with Middle Eastern terrorists interrogating then murdering an Army Ranger in his home, having already slain his wife and child. Devoid of any distinguishing characteristics save clearly foreign accents, they’re on the hunt for a mysterious “strongbox” one Ranger in a Seal Team Six-esque squad stole during an operation in which they thwarted a major attack on U.S. soil and assassinated terrorist mastermind Sheik Bin-Khalid.
As the pilot kicks into gear, this elite division of Rangers has been whittled down to just two survivors: resourceful squad leader Eric Carter (Corey Hawkins) and deeply traumatized comrade Ben Grimes (Charlie Hofheimer). But when the terrorists show up at Carter’s door, he gains the upper hand, escaping with his wife Nicole (Anna Diop) and enlisting the help of Rebecca Ingram (Miranda Otto), the director at the Counter-Terrorist Unit (CTU) who oversaw the Rangers’ mission but is on the cusp of stepping down to benefit her husband’s (Jimmy Smits) presidential campaign.
From there on, any fan of the original series can predict this spinoff’s plotted course. Carter, while tracking down Grimes and attempting to recapture what turns out to be a thumb drive containing the identities of myriad sleeper-cell agents Bin-Khalid embedded across the country, will encounter all kinds of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, from robbing a police station to fending off a group of gunmen with only what’s on hand in a construction site. Subplots will emerge, from Nicole’s unexpected entrance into a power play involving Carter’s drug-dealing brother (Ashley Thomas), to Rebecca’s growing suspicions that someone in her husband’s campaign is in cahoots with the terrorists. And either in ever-changing digits displayed on screen or fiercely barked dialogue about how time is running out, the clock will keep on ticking.
To a degree, critiquing the 24 franchise for political correctness is a fool’s errand. Like its predecessor, Legacy is an incredulity-stretching exercise in adrenaline, a pulse-pounding caper with little narrative meat on its all-American bones but a whole lot of action-cliché gristle in its teeth.
Its politics, the predictable double-crosses and betrayals included, are as straightforward as ever. The American military complex, represented by the strong and sprightly Carter as well as Ingram and her team of analysts, is a heroic underdog, battling the clock to save unwittingly imperiled U.S. citizens from a looming, seemingly unstoppable threat. And radical Islam – represented not just by Bin-Khalid’s men but also by a thus-far extraneous subplot where a vaguely accented teenage girl (Kathryn Prescott) plots a bombing with her high school chemistry teacher (Kevin Christy), whom she’s seduced and turned – is a constant threat all the more insidious because its agents are hidden in plain sight.
When 24 first hit television, Americans were reeling from the 9/11 attacks and responded favorably to a kick-ass action lead (Kiefer Sutherland’s Jack Bauer, whose expertise and brutality is eschewed here in favored of a less seasoned, more impulsive hero) capable of weeding out and taking down foreign terrorist threats before they harmed U.S. citizens.
Legacy, however, lands in a different era. Many Americans today more broadly recognize Islamophobic rhetoric as an enervating and deeply unproductive means of combatting terrorism rooted in U.S. foreign policy toward the embattled Middle East; but many others, including those currently leading the executive branch, continue to craft policy rooted in fear and hostility, not fact and context.
At times, the series seems aware of the changed audience it’s addressing. Gone is the constant use of torture to force information from suspects – indeed, only the terrorists seem willing to resort to such measures. Legacy makes small entreaties to complexity with its narrative, with one innocent (at least so far) accused of terrorism based on little more than her faith, and nefarious foes – many of whom are still unknown – hiding behind a conflation of white privilege and political influence. The repercussions of military meddling abroad, and the impact of post-traumatic stress disorder on under-served veterans, are both key if predictably over-simplified plot points. And in Carter, the series is experimenting with a hero more capable of human error.
Overall, though, Legacy hits a deeply sour note in its needless reaffirmation of Islam as a tool of terror, and it doesn’t do enough in its early episodes to overcome that set up. Provided it can retool in later seasons to exhibit less us-versus-them mentality and greater dramatic nuance, the series certainly has potential. Hawkins’ lead turn, in particular, confirms that the Straight Outta Compton actor is a bona fide talent.
At this stage, though, Legacy feels not just of a kind with its predecessor but pigeonholed by its less savory impulses toward xenophobia and political paranoia. Given the concerning, authoritarian views of our current executive branch (and its verbal supporter base), as well as that administration’s tendency to bastardize facts in the name of fear-mongering, one has to wonder whether many Americans can correctly interpret a series like 24: Legacy. It’s a show that should be cartoonish, shallow, and patently littered with stereotypes – but that is also perfectly in line with a falsified world-view many unnervingly powerful figures are attempting to assert as authentic. One could argue that the 24 franchise has always been entertainingly jingoistic propaganda. In greeting Legacy, however, it’s unnerving to consider whether enough people can still easily distinguish it as such.