12:03pm PT by Daniel Fienberg
Critic's Notebook: Watching '24: Legacy' in the Wake of Trump's Muslim Ban
When it comes to art, I guess I've always thought of "frivolous" as essentially value-neutral. It's rare that anybody aspires to "frivolity," but things that are frivolous are often things that are the most popular. For 30+ years, television operated on the principle famously articulated as "least objectionable program" by NBC's Paul L. Klein. I think of "frivolous" as being in that category.
The question of when, if ever, frivolity transitions from innocuous and inoffensive to problematic is one that will surely vary for every viewer and it's probably somewhere between "Never" and "Dude, it happened a long, long time ago."
I don't have a definitive answer for myself, but I guess I'm beginning to feel the line getting closer.
In my review of Fox's 24: Legacy, posted nearly two weeks ago, I wrote "it's action escapism, not homework," referring to how the reboot of the network's smash counterterrorism franchise isn't ripping any of its storylines from the headlines, how its depiction of electoral process is devoid of Trumpian echoes, how it continues to exist in a reality that's parallel to ours, but rarely synchs up. As I look back on my review, I was relatively positive on 24: Legacy and I meant that "action escapism" sentence as something resembling a low-level compliment — as if to say "Better to be basically divorced from reality than to make half-assed stabs at measuring the national pulse."
Not much time has passed, but I think if I were to rewrite my 24: Legacy review today, I'd reframe it to tilt from "dispassionately positive" to "dispassionately negative."
The show hasn't changed and I haven't seen episodes that changed my opinion.
I still think Corey Hawkins makes a decent Kiefer Sutherland replacement and I still think that's the most important thing that 24 needed to have. I still think there's some OK stunt work, a couple of fine set pieces and the season's opening episodes have the necessary 24 pacing and feeling. But at even this brief a distance, my ability to remember anything good about the main plot — something about fuzzily depicted Middle Easterners looking for revenge on the elite military unit that killed their leader as they turn their focus to a major retaliatory attack — has faded. In contrast, my distaste for the secondary threads that fail conspicuously has only grown. The abounding stereotypes in a subplot set against the D.C. drug trade have only worsened in my memory, and a high school-focused subplot is as bad as any the show has ever done with its younger characters (and this is a show that has always flailed ineptly with young characters).
Maybe I've begun to be less amused by the one-notch-above-generic Muslim villains who have always been 24's stock in trade.
You don't need me to rehash 24's uncomfortable ties with actual historical events, ties that date back to its initial 9/11-delayed premiere. Have most 24 baddies been swarthy Middle Easterners with one-dimensional ideologies? No, but I think that amid the sea of compensating Russian and Chinese and Eastern European adversaries, Middle Eastern bad guys have probably made up a plurality. The show's writers and producers have always had a reputation as being among Hollywood's most conservative. Still, despite a reliable "ends justify the means" ideology, I'd be hesitant to call 24 right-wing propaganda, even at its very worst. Attempts at token Muslim good guys were never convincing as anything more than tokenism, but at least those occasional attempts were made.
To be clear, 24: Legacy isn't any different from what has come before. The writers were working well before the new administration came to power and before active restriction of Muslim immigrants and refugees became an issue of policy; nothing in the first three episodes bears any resemblance to anything you might see on CNN or read about in newspapers.
But when an official close to the president can fabricate a "massacre" associated with Muslim refugees and then back away and claim that she "misspoke" — as if it were the most logical thing in the world to accidentally say "massacre" instead of "two refugees were arrested and charged with plotting terrorist activities (that were going to be carried out in a foreign country)" — maybe the lines between actual terrorism, fictional terrorism that's claimed or imagined as actual, and flat-out fictional terrorism are becoming too blurry for me?
Nuance has never been anything 24 aspired to when it came to the international incidents driving each season, and the show's nuanced villains have always been the homegrown threats lurking within CTU or even within the White House. In the early episodes of this new season, new hero Eric Carter is trying to stop a group affiliated with a dispatched sheikh and that's as far as the show goes. They're more inferred Muslims than actual Muslims, though an Iranian-American character is looked at suspiciously because she once visited a radicalized domestic mosque. These are the most general of fears that 24: Legacy is preying on, rather than anything specific or exhaustively researched.
That's why my initial read was that it's more harmless than harmful, because only somebody paying no attention to the news would take 24 seriously as anything at all. It's a show of entertaining vacuity and always has been. Sometimes it's been expertly produced entertaining vacuity and other times not. These new episodes aren't expertly produced, but they're OK.
Is that enough?
I know, for example, that the fabricated terrorist plots of History's Six are much closer to damaging and disturbing in their awfulness. When Six focuses on its main characters and, particularly, when you can just watch Walton Goggins act and forget about everything else, it's pretty decent. It's when the show uses Boko Haram and ISIS-affiliated terrorists for cheap action beats that Six falls apart for me. Unlike 24, it preys on fears that will be familiar to viewers with peripheral cultural literacy. That's manipulative trash and no matter how OK other parts of the series are, I can't be tolerant of it. I'm sure, though, that many viewers aren't bothered.
Many viewers won't be bothered by what's happening on 24: Legacy and since I wasn't initially bothered, I can't blame them, but the more and more I think about this getting a spotlight after the Super Bowl, in front of what will be probably the largest audience for any scripted program this season, I'm loving the optics less and less.
It's not that I'm saying we shouldn't have shows like this or that shows shouldn't be allowed to depict whoever they want to as villains. If Fox were premiering a new season of Sleeper Cell after the Super Bowl, I'd like to think I wouldn't be saying, "No shows with Muslim terrorists"; rather, I'd be nodding with interest at a show aspiring to feature a variety of Muslim characters, representing many moral shades. Somebody needs to make a new Sleeper Cell, or any show with the intellect and pragmatism to sincerely explore our societal fears and also reality.
Maybe these kinds of weak portraits of international relations are already no longer feeling merely frivolous to me — just as I can no longer figure out how to respond to self-serious, but thin shows like Designated Survivor or Homeland that say a few of the right things, but seem to lack the desire or the reason to handle material with any depth.
Chances are good that this feeling will pass or that desensitizing will kick in. I hope that frivolity won't be the enemy for the next four years, but I may need to seek my frivolity elsewhere.
But maybe I'm just a snowflake and this is exactly the moment for action escapism.