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“You notice things no one else would notice” is a compliment paid more than once to Jess (Lisette Olivera), the heroine of National Treasure: Edge of History. It’s ostensibly what makes her the ideal spiritual successor to Ben Franklin Gates — the protagonist played in the franchise’s two previous big-screen entries by Nicolas Cage, who does not appear here.
In practice, though, it feels more like the show’s way of insisting that Jess is more interesting than the script actually allows her to be, and its excuse for papering over the carelessness of its mysteries. Jess may have an eye for detail, but her Disney+ series has no patience for them — it’s less an intricately crafted puzzle than a jumble of half-broken odds and ends.
National Treasure: Edge of History
Cast: Lisette Olivera, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Jake Austin Walker, Zuri Reed, Jordan Rodrigues, Antonio Cipriano, Lyndon Smith
Creators: Marianne Wibberley, Cormac Wibberley
The first National Treasure wasn’t exactly a masterpiece, but its extravagant silliness had a certain charm — it’s a story that begins with Cage and his co-stars repeating the phrase “steal the Declaration of Independence” over and over as if even they can’t quite believe what the screenplay is making them do, and only grows more cheerfully implausible from there.
The plot of the new spinoff, from creators Marianne and Cormac Wibberley, would seem to be in the same loopy spirit as its predecessors. This time, the ancient trove of riches is one hidden away from the Spanish conquistadors by an underground network of Mayan, Incan and Aztec women, as explained by retired FBI agent Peter Sadusky (guest star Harvey Keitel, reprising his role from the movies).
The quest to find the treasure falls to Jess, a plucky 20something with dreams of joining the FBI’s cryptanalysis department, when she chances into a meeting with Sadusky in the premiere directed by Mira Nair. In short order, she discovers that the trove’s centuries-long history has ties to her own mysterious family background — and that she’ll need to take up the hunt for it herself if she’s to protect it from the likes of Billie (Catherine Zeta-Jones), an antiquities dealer who has her own deadly personal stake in its discovery.
If Edge of History (no, I have no idea what that title means either) is trying anything, it’s bringing a more modern, socially conscious sensibility to this 18-year-old franchise. Jess’ status as a DACA recipient and her friend Tasha’s (Zuri Reed) innate distrust of law enforcement touch upon real issues faced by racial minorities in the U.S. And the conspiracy this time is a pointed response to whitewashed colonialist narratives of the New World: Sadusky makes a point of rattling off the Mayans, Incans and Aztecs’ achievements in his exposition-dump speech to Jess, and even Billie casually notes that it wasn’t Hernán Cortés’ sword that wiped out entire civilizations but the introduction of smallpox.
But it’d be too much to expect in-depth cultural analysis from a franchise that’s mostly about people solving ridiculous puzzles left by historical figures. In the first four 45-ish minute episodes sent to critics (of a 10-episode season), Edge of History‘s engagement with these issues stops at mentioning them. The series’ attempts to capture Gen Z culture more broadly are similarly half-assed. Every time a character mentions TikTok dances or waves around a Thor Funko Pop (gotta get in that Disney synergy), it calls to mind the “How do you do, fellow kids?” scene from 30 Rock.
Edge of History‘s most fatal affliction, however, is its total lack of charisma. It’d surely be impossible to match Cage’s off-kilter energy from the movies. But Olivera’s Jess reads as simply too nice and normal to sell the sort of urgent obsession that might compel someone to put everything on the line in search of a possibly mythical treasure. And she’s one of the show’s more compelling characters. Her friend Oren (Antonio Cipriano) seems to have been conceived as ditzy comic relief, but only manages to sell the ditzy part, while her friendzoned bestie Ethan (Jordan Rodrigues) emerges as the sort of not-so-nice guy I thought we’d left behind years ago.
Zeta-Jones does bring some star wattage as Billie. Although she has little to do in most episodes beyond sneer from under an ice-blond wig, that perfect sneer elevates lines like “Why don’t you all stop second-guessing me, grab your pom-poms and start cheering me on.” (A lot of Edge of History‘s dialogue sounds like it was written without the understanding that someone would have to say these words out loud; Jess’ take on Billie is “I didn’t expect someone who looks like they walk throughout the town in Big Little Lies.”) In addition, Justin Bartha’s guest appearance as Ben’s sidekick Riley in episode four injects a welcome shot of self-aware goofiness, starting with a hilariously overwrought entrance.
But they can’t save a series that seems to have lost sight of why anyone might have wanted more National Treasure to begin with. Edge of Treasure underlines key clues with cheesy glowing graphics and flashbacks to scenes we saw just minutes ago, as if anticipating an audience only half-paying attention while scrolling mindlessly through TikTok — but hand-waves the processes of deductive reasoning and creative problem-solving that allow Jess to make those connections in the first place. Meanwhile, it finds so much time for performances by Liam, Peter’s aspiring-country-star grandson, that one might suspect the project’s true purpose was to soft-launch actor Jake Austin Walker’s pivot to music.
Maybe someone will crack the code of how to extend the National Treasure franchise someday; Riley’s cryptic comment that “Let’s just say there’s 47 reasons to be interested” in whatever he and Ben have been up to is a clear wink to fans who’ve been clamoring for a third film. But Edge of History isn’t the solution. It’s just another unsolvable problem.
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