As Rebecca Ingram (Miranda Otto) prepares to depart, winding up her tenure as national director of the Counter Terrorist Unit by holding transition meetings with her successor (Teddy Sears), the latest iteration of 24 strikes—inadvertently, it seems—at the heart of the matter. As with her traitorous Allison Carr, from the fifth season of Showtime’s Homeland, Otto’s Rebecca is a crisp, capable figure, delivering directives with flat authority; unlike Carr, she is, at least through the first three episodes of 24: Legacy, a “patriot,” prioritizing the country’s safety over both protocol and her personal life. The trouble is, even patriots aren’t immune to power’s distorting influence, its enrapturing embrace: As Rebecca reflects in the series premiere, already uneasy at the prospect of focusing on her husband’s presidential ambitions, “Running CTU is like a drug. Hard to come down from.”
The same might be said of the president’s powers, which, once accrued, are not readily relinquished, and it’s this that marks 24: Legacy as a symptom of withdrawal—a series that hangs for dear life onto the terms of the original, even as the course of history attempts to rip it away. With few exceptions, Legacy, from creators Robert Cochran and Joel Surnow, replicates both the style and the spirit of 24, its split screens and ticking clocks almost nostalgic for a moment in which the ends might be seen—on television as in government—to justify the means. Of course, this was no more true in November 2001, when 24 debuted, than it is now, but it’s Legacy’s failure to reckon with the intervening years that reduces it to such a bafflingly tone-deaf reprise. If Homeland, guilty of its own immoderation on the subject, now appears chastened by the War on Terror, 24: Legacy, rather frighteningly, still revels in it. It’s the same series for a new era, strung out on the thrill of the fight.
This isn’t to suggest that 24 never manufactured superb television—I remain staunch in the belief that Jean Smart’s performance as unstable First Lady Martha Logan, in the series’ fifth season, is one of last decade’s finest, opening with camp and ripening into courage—or to deny that I, too, once found it wildly entertaining. (Twelve years ago, before I had my wisdom teeth removed, I rented a season’s worth of DVDs at Blockbuster and devoured them in a single, painkiller-fueled weekend. It was glorious.) But just as the new administration’s malice, reminiscent of Nixon, offers daily reminders of the importance of checks and balances, Legacy, in the present context, underlines 24’s fundamental flaw—one that critics more prescient than I recognized from the outset. The problem with 24, and indeed with the better part of the American public, was that it assumed the expanded power of the intelligence agencies would always remain in the hands of men and women for whom—whatever disagreements we might have over particular policies—the motivating interest was the national one. Now we’ve invited the fox into the henhouse, where our chickens are already cooked.
Legacy reads, in short, as Steve Bannon masturbation material: It opens on a trio of swarthy figures methodically assassinating the members of the Army Ranger unit that dispatched their former leader, terrorist mastermind Ibrahim Bin-Khalid, and devolves from there into full-throated xenophobic hysteria. Among the targets are Eric Carter (Corey Hawkins), the series’ Jack Bauer-esque hero, and his disturbed comrade, Ben Grimes (Charlie Hofheimer), the latter in possession of a flash drive with information on sleeper cells awaiting the signal to unleash coordinated attacks across the U.S. As they’re pursued by Bin-Khalid’s henchmen, now under the direction of the sheik’s dapper, British accented son (Raphael Acloque), the series introduces the lineaments of a trademark 24 conspiracy. Is Sears’ incoming CTU director, Keith Mullins, the source of the leak that exposed the Rangers’ whereabouts? Is high school student Amira Dubayev (Kathryn Prescott) in league with the attackers, as a classmate suspects? Is Nilaa Mizrani (Sheila Vand) using her role as campaign manager for Rebecca’s husband to access sensitive information?
If the series’ “events occur in real time” gimmick no longer seems novel, then, it’s not simply because, after eight seasons of the original, a TV movie (24: Redemption) and a limited series (24: Live Another Day), we’ve become inured to it. It’s because Legacy sits so far afield from the real-time crisis unfolding in airports and at border crossings, in Washington, D.C. and around the globe, that it functions as a dangerous alt-right fantasy of foreign infiltrators and radicalized citizens collaborating to destroy the country from within. It’s ripped from the headlines, all right—the headlines of Breitbart and its white nationalist brethren, seething with fascistic invective. (As if further proof of its ideological content were necessary, the new season also features an inexplicable subplot in which Eric stashes his girlfriend with his brother, a walking, talking racist stereotype.) At a moment in which Frank Gaffney, Jr., an influential figure in Trump’s orbit, is quoted in the New York Times describing Muslims as “termites” — “the speech of exterminators,” as The New Yorker’s Philip Gourevitch put it on Twitter — Legacy’s dramatization of such baseless fears cannot be glossed as playing fast and loose with realism in the service of a compelling yarn. It is, at best, an utterly misconceived attempt to capture the tenor of the times; more likely, if the national mood darkens further, it will be remembered as the Trump years’ first piece of mass propaganda.
“American carnage,” indeed.
24: Legacy premieres Sunday, February 5 on Fox, following the Super Bowl.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.