24: Legacy is a show about the government at war. It’s about a political body conducting what is known as “politics by other means.” All art is political to one degree or another, but you’d think that would be more obvious than usual here.
Best of luck telling that to the “keep politics out of it” crowd, though. No matter how overtly ideological the content of a show or film gets, there will always be people who don’t want to hear a discouraging word. (They typically share the ideology of the work in question, which one assumes is the real reason for their objection.) However, 24: Legacy’s defenders have a tall order in trying to rule harsh criticism out of bounds: In attempting to defend the series for its poisonous portrayal of Muslims and immigrants, co-creators Manny Coto and Evan Katz have admitted the show is political, but, like, in a good way.
But maybe the naysayers have a point. For the sake of argument, let’s say the critics-of-the-critics are right, and politics should be left out of the 24: Legacy discussion. Fine with me: Put aside the Islamophobia, the xenophobia, the misogyny, the fear-mongering, and the glorification of the all-powerful security state … and there’s still so, so much dislike.
Following hot on the heels of its post-Super Bowl premiere, tonight’s episode offers evidence aplenty. The worst offense is the doughy, first-draft dialogue. Whether they’re spouting tech jargon, spilling their guts, or trying to make someone see we don’t have enough time!!!, every character speaks in boilerplate. Some examples:
• “Let me out of here!” “I can’t do that. Not until I know that I can trust you.”
• “Killing the Rangers is only the beginning. These people are planning attacks against our country.”
• “Will you be able to find the leak or not?” “Yes, but I don’t know how long it’ll take.”
• “We’re here to finish what my father started.”
• “I don’t expect you to believe me, but if I don’t get that money, a lot of people are gonna die.”
Sure, we could talk about the characters who uttered each line, but why bother? You’ve seen those characters and heard those lines in dozens of movies and series. Nothing here distinguishes them, complicates them, makes them clever or unexpected. Even a cast that would probably work wonders with a different project — Corey Hawkins, Miranda Otto, Teddy Sears, Ashley Thomas, Charlie Hofheimer, Dan Bucatinsky, Sheila Vand, Anna Diop, Jimmy Smits, and Gerald McRaney are all engaging performers, even under these dire circumstances — can’t save them.
Strictly as a thriller, the plotting of the episode is a flop as well. Much of it concerns Carter’s attempt to steal $2 million from a police precinct evidence locker in order to pay off Grimes, the homeless vet from his Ranger unit who’s blackmailing the government with a list of terrorist sleeper cells. The scheme requires a huge coincidence to get started: Carter’s gangster brother Isaac just happens to drop news of the cops’ recent drug raid into their conversation as a joke. It’s the kind of delicate operation that a show like The Americans or Breaking Bad or The Wire would spend a season building up and piecing together; 24: Legacy introduces the existence of the money and cements the plan to steal it in about 30 seconds. Even worse, it’s completely unnecessary, since Carter and his contacts at CTU know exactly where and when the handoff will be. They could simply deck Grimes and steal the drive containing the info right then and there with no money down.
This ties to a more fundamental problem with the show: the truly ridiculous real-time setup. Put as many digital clock readouts on the screen as you want, but nothing about the show so far actually feels like it’s all taken place in two hours. The characters’ emotions and connections to one another, such as they are, grow and change at the same rate as they would on any other show: Eric and Isaac, for example, are already showing signs of caring about each other during a tense phone call, even though their initial hostile meeting after years of estrangement took place approximately 45 minutes earlier. Each scene involving Amira, David, and Drew — the immigrant terrorist temptress who’s not yet old enough to vote, the kiddy-diddling teacher she’s seduced into blowing up his own school, and the ex-boyfriend who stumbles across their plot — feels like it takes place on a different day of the week, not during a couple periods of a single school day. And every time we see Carter, it’s hard not to think, “This dude was hanging out in his bathroom and handing his wife a towel not even two hours ago, and now he’s rigging suicide vests to break into a police station after killing five people.” The mind-melting effect of such a rapid change of circumstances simply isn’t evident in anyone’s words or behavior.
But you know what is? Absolutely insane levels of anti-Muslim bigotry and right-wing paranoia. (Yeah, I lied about the whole “no politics” thing.) While Sheikh Bin Khalid’s posh Oxford-educated son and his network of bad brown men are terrible enough, Amira (Kathryn Prescott) remains the most egregious offense. It’s absolutely soul-crushing to watch 24: Legacy push this completely bogus, never-happened idea that children are recruited and sent to mix with our precious young Americans in order to kill them where they study. Amira’s additional role as the seducer of her teacher, who looks and acts like a Breitbart parody of liberals right down to his sexual interest in minors, makes the character even more repulsive.
Coto and Katz can tell viewers to stay tuned because everything we know is wrong all they want. Television isn’t consumed with clairvoyance, but with your eyes and ears. What matters is what winds up on screen, and what’s on screen here is poisonous, no matter how many racial-profiling cops and sleazy Islamophobic attack ads are used as smokescreens. Even if it’s all revealed to be part of some conservative double-cross of the country, the message remains that hordes of Muslims lie in wait to murder us in our homes, whether on their own initiative or as part of a plot by people who fail to realize that America Is Already Great. 24: Legacy shows just how much work we have to do for that to be even remotely true.