Brow Beat

TV’s Crime Dramas Are Playing Into Donald Trump’s Agenda, but Audiences Aren’t Buying It

24: Legacy.


24: Legacy, Fox’s heavily hyped successor to the Emmy-winning 24, began by rubbing salt in the country’s wounds. The series opened on a group of Islamic terrorists invading a home on American soil, with blood spattered on the walls and the white family inside shot to death. Airing immediately after the nationalist pageantry of the Super Bowl, the sequence was especially jarring, an unnervingly inflammatory depiction of a religious group that had just been put under siege by the Trump administration. As with many television shows premiering around this time, the 24: Legacy pilot was likely produced under the assumption of a predictable Clinton victory, expecting to coast as an exciting escape from humdrum political continuity. But it landed very differently in Trump’s America, turning its suspicions onto the very people being unjustly targeted in the real world.

Sensing mounting controversy and unease, the producers of 24: Legacy insisted such apparent insensitivity was all part of a plan; they were intentionally being “jingoistic” by way of welcoming their audience into a more nuanced, tolerant exploration of terror and culture. “I like to say the series begins as if it was written by Trump,” co-creator Manny Coto explained. “But it ends as if it were written by Hillary [Clinton]. It’s not going where you think it’s going.” Yet the second episode of 24: Legacy only peddled more stereotypes, advancing the fearmongering story of a teenage Muslim woman being recruited and sent to mix with young Americans at a local high school. In Episode 4, which aired Monday, she reluctantly killed the dopey white guy crushing on her, as instructed—a symbol of her cell’s corrupting influence.

For Americans looking for relief from the daily deluge of alarming headlines, TV is an obvious destination. But in the beginning of 2017, we’re seeing broadcast networks churn out crime dramas that intend to mindlessly entertain yet can’t seem to help but stoke fears and confirm biases that are partly responsible for where we are now. Even their fictional massacres are drawing on real ones.

Shows about rule-bending lawmen are nearly as old as television itself, but with the Trump administration openly picking fights with law-enforcement agencies, they carry a heavy, and perhaps unbearable, ideological weight. The grand scheme behind 24: Legacy remains to be seen, but regardless of how it shakes up the terror-thriller formula, it’s hard to see how the show could feel anything but wrong for its moment. 24: Legacy is overwhelmed by suspicious governmental actors, bureaucratic inefficiencies, and ubiquitous threats to the country’s safety—implicitly endorsing the exaggerated notion of a corrupted, failing, unsafe America that Trump has tried to entrench in the collective imagination. Security is constantly being breached; paranoia is not only justified, but standard. For comfort, I suppose, there’s that one guy saving the world, one hour at a time. It’s the same 24 recipe, repackaged with a new (woke?) protagonist in Eric Carter (Corey Hawkins), who tears down American enemies and drains Washington of its corruption.

Fox’s APB, which airs immediately after 24: Legacy on Monday nights, similarly centers on a protocol-skirting fixer, and it’s also waded into unexpectedly relevant waters. The series is as obsessed with the Chicago crime rate as our current president, painting a familiar picture of urban carnage in need of extraordinary intervention. (In the words of Twitter Trump, “Send in the feds!”) Inspired by real events, APB begins with a prickish, eccentric billionaire named Gideon Reeves (Justin Kirk) taking over the city’s 13th precinct with his high-tech Better Way. The third episode introduces Gideon’s bracingly efficient crime-scene unit, which works better and faster than many on the force ever thought possible and toys with digitized interrogation tactics. But even as it engages in arbitrary debates pitting human against artificial intelligence, APB fetishizes the slick strategies employed by its main character. This is, again, par for the course of network TV crime drama. But as our politics shift so do our demands not just for high art but escapist entertainment as well. The show’s ostensible function as a light techie procedural is compromised by its near-dystopian vision of urban violence. It resonates most deeply as an inadvertently reactionary take on the discourse around policing, riddled with talk of overhaul that ignores genuine systemic issues and favors a disingenuous tough-on-crime ethos.

Perhaps the most egregious offender in terms of misjudging its political moment is CBS’s Training Day, which manages to turn a relatively complex film into a nightmarish account of cities thrust into chaos that only a maverick—read: constitutionally flexible—cop can solve. The series, at times, all but parrots Trump’s lies and misrepresentations about the fictitious crime wave that’s (not) sweeping the nation. Bill Paxton’s rogue cop Frank Rourke says police officers are too “politically correct” to do their jobs correctly and that crime is up “300 percent” in Los Angeles. (Slight hyperbole there.) Like APB, Training Day poses superficial quandaries about the ethics of its protagonist’s methods, and like APB, it’s not-so-secretly enamored of them. Frank plays father figure to wide-eyed trainee Kyle (Justin Cornwell), and—again like APB’s Gideon, not to mention Legacy’s Eric—he manages to get results as the by-the-book squares around him cannot. Perhaps the only major difference here is that Frank has a backstory to legitimize his outlook. “I’ve been hunting our men through this city since O.J. was doing Hertz commercials and one thing I can tell you,” he says in the pilot: “Nothing ever changes.”

For network TV, at least, this seems to be the case. These shows may preach innovation, but in execution they’re no different from the right-leaning procedurals Fox and CBS have been producing for decades. But as we find ourselves litigating reality itself, these depictions surpass the harmless mechanics of TV production and find themselves at the apex of pressing national conversations. Their politically incorrect, bureaucracy-purging, billionaire-boosting heroes fighting brown-skinned villains aren’t merely passively offensive TV tropes but active contributors to a rising atmosphere of racism and moral panic.

It’s telling that these shows aren’t performing at all well in the ratings and even could be headed for cancellation. (None of them are particularly good, admittedly—but that has rarely stopped mediocre broadcast fare from reaching tens of millions of viewers.) They purport to be fun, fluffy, mildly relevant hourlong stopovers, a break from real life and the daily grind. But the violent politics of APB, 24: Legacy, and Training Day are inescapable, whether you align with them or not. They make familiar promises of fixing a perilous world through untested, unregulated means. And considering President Trump’s wildly misleading claims regarding crime and terror—the increased crime rates boasted about in Training Day, the sights of citywide carnage depicted in APB, the threats posed by U.S.-residing Muslims reinforced in 24: Legacy—they’re promises that sound conspicuously hollow.