24 Is Back, and Its Politics Are … Confusing

Can a show be tacitly anti-immigration and also woke?

Corey Hawkins in 24: Legacy.
Corey Hawkins in 24: Legacy.

20th Century Fox Television

24: Legacy wishes Hillary Clinton were president. The revival of Fox’s real-time series about a one-man anti-terrorism squad, now starring Corey Hawkins as former Special Forces Army Ranger Eric Carter instead of Kiefer Sutherland as Jack Bauer, does not have a thing for women in pantsuits or a vendetta against men who believe orange is their best color. It does not have particularly liberal politics. But if Hillary had won, 24: Legacy could perhaps have snuck back onto prime time as a residually controversial piece of entertainment. Instead, it is being released at a time when discussions of torture and the portrayal of Muslims in the media are more fraught than they have been since the original 24 aired. Like a beehive accidentally delivered to a houseful of anaphylactics, 24: Legacy is likely to cause more volatile reactions than intended.

The original 24 ran from 2001 to 2010, a high-octane and controversial advertisement for torture as practiced by the Bush administration. Under serious time constraints, Jack Bauer and his colleagues at the Counter Terrorism Unit known as CTU regularly inflicted physical and undue psychologically pain on their suspects, reliably extracting good information from informants who often showed no lasting ill effects from their treatment. 24, especially in the early seasons, was tense, taut television that simultaneously stoked and assuaged post-9/11 anxiety, tapping directly into Americans’ terrorism fears and solving them with a great white hope: the strong man willing to do anything to keep us safe, in a world where “anything” always worked. 24 didn’t just normalize torture; it popularized it.

During the Obama years, when many of the immoral and ineffective enhanced interrogation tactics practiced by the Bush administration were outlawed or retired, the debate around torture cooled. Then came Donald Trump to heat things up with his blithe conviction that torture “absolutely” works. Given the president’s TV-watching habits, it is easy to imagine he believes this because he saw it work on 24. The Trump administration’s Muslim ban looms even larger over 24: Legacy, reframing the series’ very premise—a terrorist organization about to unleash upward of 15 sleeper cells on American soil—as fearmongering rather than an adrenaline jolt.

The series begins with scenes of torture. A team of Army Rangers who participated in a successful raid to kill the terrorist mastermind Ibrahim Bin-Khalid—think Osama bin Laden, with the Rangers as SEAL Team Six—are being violently interrogated by Bin-Khalid’s survivors, who are madly searching for a strongbox that was taken during the initial raid. The torture, which includes the execution of the rangers’ wives and children, is again portrayed as effective—“He would have told us,” one of the jihadis says, about whether a now-dead Rangers’ denials could be trusted—but it is being carried out by the “bad” guys. The CTU team, thus far, does not torture, but they do invade the privacy of American citizens at will. CTU’s warrantless access to all phone records and closed circuit cameras is the morally reprehensible time-saver 24: Legacy uses instead of torture. When you need a piece of information, why punch someone in the face when you can just eavesdrop on all his calls?

Carter was the leader of that Ranger team, and the terrorists are coming for him next. Carter alerts Rebecca Ingram (Miranda Otto, following up her recent appearance on Homeland with another stint in national security), the former head of CTU, recently retired to support her husband John Donovan (Jimmy Smits) in his bid for the presidency. Ingram and Carter, with the help of CTU analysts, are soon engaged in an off-book mission to help Carter track the strongbox. The plot then expands to include Carter trying to break $2 million out of a police station, Ingram using a Taser on the current head of CTU, Carter’s druglord brother, a Chechnyan sleeper in suburbia, moles, subterfuge, the Islamic State group, and an Oxford-educated terrorist mastermind who speaks with a British accent. (One of the terrorists in the History Channel’s new show about Navy SEALs, Six, also has an Oxbridge accent. You can take the villain out of the James Bond movie, but you can’t take the James Bond movie out of the villain.)

Right-thinking people can disagree about whether it’s enjoyable or not for a TV show to send you into a state of panic, but that’s what 24 did at its most compelling. Politics aside, Legacy doesn’t come anywhere close. Kiefer Sutherland, with his gravelly voice and creepy calm, could really imbue a cheesy line with gravitas. Hawkins does not quite have the knack yet. The plotting recalls late-season 24 rather than early-season 24: In just four episodes, Carter and Ingram have undertaken two operations alone because they can’t trust anyone at CTU.

But what 24: Legacy lacks in nail-biting excitement, it makes up for in head-spinning politics. For all the fears of a looming Muslim attack on American soil that 24: Legacy fans, its values are not entirely predictable. The sleeper cells that Carter and CTU are trying to find consist of terrorists both homegrown and international, but to get into the country, those “bad guys” need the help of a shadowy arms dealer and human trafficker: They are not slipping past our borders disguised as refugees. Perhaps in response to the Muslim-bashing the original was accused of, the sleeper cell that the show focuses on most closely consists of two Caucasian Chechnyans and a blond science teacher. In another storyline, it’s not the Muslim woman who’s the national security leak, it’s the fat cat.

And then there is the progressive fact at the very center of the series: Eric Carter is black. (Also: Donovan is a half-Hispanic presidential candidate, and CTU has two gay employees.) A white terrorist-foiling superhero has been replaced by a black terrorist-foiling superhero, this one with a wife (Anna Diop) who seems about a billion times more competent than Jack’s string of helpless helpmeets. In the second episode, as Carter plans to get arrested in order to gain access to the $2 million, Ingram wonders how he’s going to do that. “I’m a black man standing on the corner,” he says. “It shouldn’t be too hard.” Seconds later he is stopped and frisked by a racist cop with a history of harsh arrests. Can a show be tacitly anti-immigration and also woke?