Legacy is a telling choice of subtitle for Fox's latest summoning of its hit 24 franchise. No matter when or how often the network brings back the frantic, counterterrorism action drama, 24 will forever carry a whiff of 9/11-era fears and responses.
The show first became a prescient and even cathartic success 15 years ago, at the outset of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. As those wars continue, so do the occasional flashes of the paranoia and patriotism that 24 triggered in loyal viewers and, we can presume, some of our leaders. So there is a legacy here. There's also a burden.
24: Legacy, which American network Fox long ago scheduled as the dessert plate to Monday's Super Bowl, now finds itself competing with real-time anxieties in a national moment that some have referred to as a constitutional crisis.
In its long, convoluted history strewn with Islamic bad guys who infiltrate American society with the ease of gold-member frequent fliers, 24 is also no stranger to impetuous presidents, shady Oval Office advisers and other traitorous appointees and lawmakers. The show sustains itself with an undermining, paranoid sense that anyone with high-security clearance has as much potential to be a bad guy as a hero.
That hasn't changed, and the question this time is how much juice remains in the viewer's adrenaline reserves for shows like these at this particular moment - and here I would include the current, slow-cooking sixth season of Showtime's Homeland.
If you find yourself nodding in assent with President Donald Trump's executive-order attempts to crack down on Muslim immigration as a means of thwarting potential terrorism, then 24: Legacy is still right up your alley - even without its most resourceful rogue in the mix, Kiefer Sutherland's Jack Bauer.
In Bauer's place is Eric Carter (Corey Hawkins of The Walking Dead and Straight Outta Compton), whose former life as a sergeant in an elite Army Ranger unit ended with the successful killing in Yemen of terrorist mastermind Ibrahim Bin-Khalid - after which Carter and the other members of his unit were given new identities to protect them from retaliation by Bin-Khalid's son and his al-Qaida-like operatives.
At precisely noon on an otherwise normal Washington weekday (cue the reset of 24's clink-clink clock), terrorists begin killing the former Rangers one by one, desperate to find a thumb drive that was stolen from Bin-Khalid's house. Carter and his wife, Nicole (Anna Diop), barely escape death; he drops Nicole off at her very own subplot, a (carnage-plagued) ghetto controlled by his estranged, drug-lord brother, Isaac (Ashley Thomas). Carter then speeds off to locate his only other surviving unit member (Ben Grimes), who, it turns out, stole the thumb drive during the Rangers' mission.
What's on this thumb drive? An encrypted list of Bin-Khalid's many American sleeper cells of terrorists, ready to activate at a moment's notice.
Miranda Otto plays Rebecca Ingram, the outgoing director of 24's vaunted CTU (Counter-Terrorism Unit), who has resigned to focus on the presidential campaign of her husband, Sen. John Donovan (Jimmy Smits). Viewers don't have time to pause here and clear their repertory banks of the fact that Otto just played a dirty CIA agent in last season's Homeland, or that Smits was already elected president in the final season of The West Wing. (Either get over it, or stop watching so much TV, I guess.)
When Rebecca learns of the attack on the Army Rangers, she's sucked back into the game at CTU, which puts her at odds with her successor (Teddy Sears), who, in typical 24 fashion, will have to be secretly locked in a room until Rebecca and her computer-savvy Chloe O'Brian-type (this time an uppity gay techie, Andy, played by Dan Bucatinsky) can figure out who leaked the Rangers' whereabouts to the terrorists.
So much of 24: Legacy relies on its predecessor's tried-and-true format that the show fast becomes a parody of its better days. No sooner does a viewer wonder whether there will be Trouble Teens in this iteration (honouring the comically inept legacy of Kim Bauer) than the screen segues to a suburban high school, where a Chechen-immigrant student, Amira (Kathryn Prescott), has seduced her nerdy chemistry teacher (Kevin Christy), who is now assembling a bomb for her to detonate with her older brother. It's just one part of Bin-Khalid's complicated schemes, and, it seems, a lame attempt to echo the ethnically Chechen Tsarnaev brothers' bombing of the 2013 Boston Marathon.
It's unfortunate that four episodes in, Hawkins never gets to demonstrate much in the way of character development; as a new hero, he's mostly saddled with replicating Jack Bauer's forward momentum, with no time for us to get inside his head. In fact, that lack of imagination and depth is what mars 24: Legacy. It's why all but one of its black characters are busy playing out a drug-dealing scenario and its Middle Eastern characters are credited as "Jihadi #1" and such, while most of the white people frantically hammer at their computer keyboards back at CTU and still have time for humanizing subplots.
All of which makes this a marvellous opportunity to stop crediting such shows with having a knack for real-world prescience or a special ability to reflect America's most pressing anxieties back at the viewer. As 24: Legacy sets sail for the land of the utterly implausible (and topically irrelevant), perhaps it's for the best. It's time to let 24 live or die on the basis of its ability to purely entertain. And based on the first four hours of Sgt. Carter's long day, the prospect for that looks iffy.
A viewer could come to similar conclusions about Homeland, which puts a primacy on verisimilitude and background expertise yet also finds itself eclipsed by the day's relentless, sometimes surreal headlines.
Homeland retains much of the moral ambiguity that has smartly defined the show since its 2011 debut. Former CIA agent Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) now lives in Brooklyn, making up for past sins by working as an adviser to a law office that represents Muslim Americans who have been wrongly accused or harassed by the U.S. government. To that bit of relevance add Homeland decision to portray the president-elect as a woman, Elizabeth Keane (Elizabeth Marvel), which to some fans suggested that creator Alex Gansa and the show's writers had, like the rest of Hollywood, bet on a different outcome to the 2016 election.
Yet, unlike Hillary Clinton, this president-elect turns out to be an intelligence naïf, guided mainly by the grief and anger she retains from losing a son to the war on terror. Dismissive and even resentful of the intelligence community, represented here by stalwart spooks Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin) and Dar Adal (F. Murray Abraham), Homeland commander in chief has turned out to be as inscrutable on foreign policy as our own.
Even with these fresh angles, however, Homeland has lost the sense that it's always a step ahead of our real-life worries. Besides transitional indigestion at the CIA, there's not enough going on; in three episodes, Homeland has yet to define a central threat or ticking bomb, choosing instead to dwell on personal insecurities and trying to interest us in Israel's never-ending animosity toward Iran (and vice versa). If Homeland really had its finger on the pulse, Keane would simply put her rich-kid son-in-law in charge of brokering a Middle East peace deal.
Homeland most interesting character, another former agent named Peter Quinn (Rupert Friend), survived gaseous poisoning last season only to become a bitter invalid who lives in Carrie's basement and keeps a radio tuned to an InfoWars-type conspiracy talk show. When he leaves the house, things tend to play out like a "Mr. Bill" short, with Quinn getting kicked, punched and squashed over and over. Homeland feels uncharacteristically out of step this season - dull, even - and although it is still very much preoccupied with looming threats to national security, it's no longer worth giving oneself an additional set of Sunday-night cable jitters.
You can't blame the networks for the timing, but you also can't blame a former fan of terrorism TV for deciding to acquire a raging case of post-traumatic stress from Rachel Maddow instead.