Lurching out of the past, mostly the same but with some slight differences, here comes 24: Legacy, as naked a cash grab as you’re likely to see on television.
It is, effectively, the same old show, with different actors and a few new concerns. But where the original 24 is one of the most vital documents of its era, running from 2001 to 2010 at a diehard sprint, then returning briefly in 2014 for an old-man saunter of a miniseries, this one limps. The bag of tricks is empty, and it has been for a long time.
And yet watching 24: Legacy is sort of fascinating all the same. It’s a series convinced of its own gravitas that doesn’t seem to realize how much of the original’s gravitas was tied up in that specific group of characters — especially Kiefer Sutherland’s Jack Bauer, a one-man stand-in for an America that felt as if its moral compass had been ripped away.
All of the show’s usual narrative tricks are here, too, but what they underline most strongly in 2017 is how the series that was once TV’s strangest (and, remarkably, used as an excuse for neoconservative foreign policy more than once) now feels as if it can’t keep up with reality. A reality TV star who is suspected by the intelligence community of having ties to the Russian government unexpectedly becoming president sounds like a 24 plot, but 24: Legacy feels like it’s still fighting yesterday’s battles.
Here are three narrative tricks 24: Legacy uses that have lost their punch in the time between then and now.
1) “The 24 two-step”
24 is well-remembered for being one of the most jingoistic shows ever, an uncritical embrace of the George W. Bush administration’s foreign policy, use of torture, and insistence that American might made right.
That’s mostly true, especially in the aggregate, but the original series was also more complicated than that. It was an embrace of Bush policies that, nevertheless, was written and set in the liberal enclave of Los Angeles, California, and thus attempted to maintain some degree of remove from those policies. It wanted, at all times, to gaze stoically at its torture cake, in hopes of conveying just how conflicted it was about this state of affairs, then eat it too.
I came to call this narrative move “the 24 two-step.” It allowed the series to feint toward moral and political complexity — Jack Bauer might be a torturer, but it’s slowly but surely eroding his soul, just like his country’s! — while simultaneously allowing for the visceral rush of watching Jack torture people.
Take how often the show would insist that the vast majority of Muslims are not terrorists, with a handful of peaceful Muslim characters, only to nevertheless feature endless waves of Islamic terrorists. Plenty of people read that as “just being realistic,” but it always read as cagey to me. Inevitably, the Muslims who didn’t seem like terrorists were, and those who did seem like terrorists weren’t (or had some complicated, hyper-personal justification for their actions), because the show never met a narrative reversal it didn’t love.
This exact set of character twists has pretty much been airlifted wholesale into 24: Legacy, which insists that people are more complicated than their stereotypes — not all women are conniving shrews; not all black people are drug dealers; not all etc. — then has great fun rolling around in the stereotypical muck anyway.
This is particularly true of the series’ portrayal of gender relations, which inevitably fall into one of two categories: a brave dude protecting his lady, or a less brave dude easily seduced and swindled by an evil lady. (There is one notable exception, which we’ll get to.)
To be clear, sometimes the 24 two-step works to 24: Legacy’s advantage. The best episode of the four I’ve seen essentially deals with how hard it is for the series’ new hero, Eric Carter (Corey Hawkins), to channel Jack Bauer as a black man. The show barely underlines how, say, it’s far easier for him to get nabbed by the police for his attempts at heroics, and it doesn’t need to. But, sadly, this kind of narrative subtlety too often escapes Legacy.
2) “When people are in crisis, they basically behave like soap opera characters”
The narrative mix that made 24 work was that it carefully blended gigantic, world-shattering stakes with very personal crises.
The first season, for instance, involved Jack Bauer’s daughter being kidnapped on the same day an attempt is made on a presidential candidate’s life. The personal and political bled into each other, especially as Jack revealed he was trying to make good to his wife after being caught having an affair.
But the way 24 blended those ideas — and the way 24: Legacy goes about doing so — involved, in essence, people behaving like soap opera characters when under duress. The series’ central storytelling gimmick — every season (of 24 episodes in the original and 12 episodes in Legacy) unfolds in real time — essentially insists that every crisis be dealt with in the stupidest way possible.
When two characters in Legacy believe they’ve caught a coworker in a lie, they don’t merely try to confront him. They do so, he attempts to escape, and they’re forced to knock him out and hide his unconscious form. In the real world, nobody would behave this way. In 24 land, everybody does.
In 24 land, the appropriate response to a minor political crisis has always been trying to launch a massive terrorist attack that will hopefully level the playing field in your favor. In 24 land, all romantic relationships are time bombs counting down to, or away from, massive betrayal. In 24 land, there’s never a friend you can’t screw over. All of these lessons return to 24: Legacy.
This is especially true in the show’s political storyline, which once again features a presidential candidate (now played by Jimmy Smits) whose marital and staff issues come to dominate a day that should be a political triumph for him. The only difference in this storyline from the one in 24’s first season is that the candidate’s wife, played by Miranda Otto, is the former head of CTU, the counter-terrorism group at the show’s center, which gives the story a more organic connection to the action elsewhere.
Otherwise, it’s a weird morass of half-finished thoughts and barely coherent storytelling, without the exciting novelty stemming from the real-time storytelling device that let original 24 get away with so much.
3) “This is a very, very serious story about America’s response to terrorism”
If there’s a place where 24 easily and obviously outpaces Legacy it’s here. The original was frequently ridiculous in its insistence that it was a serious show, but it also slowly accumulated an epic amount of sadness and pain inflicted upon the handful of central characters who stayed alive for the bulk of its run.
The show’s embrace of the worst of America played into the characters’ guilt complexes. They felt more and more worn down by their own awful actions and complicity in terrible things, and that held the show together — if you didn’t think about it too hard.
Legacy would love to do the same thing, but it doesn’t seem to realize that this sort of gravitas has to be earned and can’t be insisted upon. The series wants you to know that the story it’s telling is grave, with deep moral weight and a connection to what’s happening in our real world. But it’s hard to buy that that when one of the foremost terrorist plotters is a teen girl Chechen separatist who ends up stranded in what might as well be My So-Called Life: The Terrorist Years. (She likes two boys, and she wants to demolish the state!)
This disconnect between backstory and reality extends to the fact that Legacy takes place in the 24 universe — where multiple nuclear bombs have gone off on American soil, and multiple presidents have been assassinated — but the political debates seem to be straight out of 2002, rather than embracing the original series’ slow tilt toward full dystopia.
Hawkins is a compelling presence, and his handling of the show’s signature action sequences suggests an actor who can carry a show. But as a character, Eric Carter is a bit of a dud, with a snooze of a backstory that does little to enliven him. Even Jack Bauer had cheated on his wife and had flaws. Eric Carter just feels like a guy the universe keeps trying to kill for no reason.
Perhaps that’s the ultimate difference between 24 and 24: Legacy: Jack Bauer, by design, was complicit in evil. The first-season terrorist plot had him as a target for a reason. His family was falling apart for a reason. His soul was weighted down by guilt for a reason. Yeah, he was a badass, and yeah, he could handle himself. But he was also a guy who constantly seemed about two seconds away from committing suicide.
Eric Carter, meanwhile, is often complicit but doesn’t realize it. He uses the country’s massive surveillance state to spy on pals and stay safe, and he does terrible things in the name of “justice,” but because he’s still just a newbie at all of this, he doesn’t yet understand the legacy of horrors he’s a part of. He has the right motives, usually, so he believes he’s a good guy. Where Jack Bauer had scars, Eric Carter has blind spots.
Maybe this show is smarter about modern America than I’m giving it credit for.
24: Legacy debuted after the Super Bowl on Sunday, February 5 on Fox. The show moves to its regular time slot of Mondays at 8 pm Eastern on Monday, February 6.