When 24 debuted back in 2001, it was an early punk band: bold and messy and groundbreaking in the ways it helped push TV drama forward, and made network TV a safer place to tell serialized stories.
But inevitably, every punk band that manages to stay alive and together becomes some form of dinosaur rock, and when 24 finished its original run, what had once been revolutionary and dangerous about it was now codified and predictable, just replacing pre-24 TV formula with its own. By the time of 2014’s reunion miniseries 24: Live Another Day, Kiefer Sutherland’s Jack Bauer was another classic rock frontman, there to play the hits for the fans who adored them and wouldn’t want anything new if the writers were even interested in offering it up.
But Live Another Day still had Sutherland, whom the 24 writers have long credited for giving weight to the show’s many implausible plot twists. (As co-creator Joel Surnow once told me, “We’re nothing without Kiefer’s delivery.”) And it had several other returning characters the audience had varying degrees of fondness for, chief among them Mary Lynn Rajskub as Jack’s hacker sidekick Chloe. Yes, it was a collection of oldies, but featuring the people who had made them goodies in the first place.
The new 24: Legacy, on the other hand, is what happens when one of those old bands wants to keep touring without the frontman who made them special in the first place — or the lead guitarist, or part of the rhythm section. It’s all of the franchise’s silliest and most annoying contrivances, only without the saving grace of Jack and Chloe to remind you of how much you enjoyed that stuff the first time you heard it rather than the hundredth.
Our hero this time is Eric Carter (played by Corey Hawkins from Straight Outta Compton), ex-Special Forces, now living in anonymity with wife Nicole (Anna Diop) after his unit took out a Bin Laden-esque terrorist leader. But when most of his former comrades and their families are murdered as part of an elaborate plot to commit mass atrocities against America(*), Eric has to seek help from former CTU boss Rebecca Ingram (Miranda Otto), who has retired to be part of her husband John Donovan’s (Jimmy Smits) run for president.
(*) The original 24 — whose pilot climaxes with terrorists blowing up a passenger jet — debuted two months after 9/11. The new one debuts a week after our new POTUS’ Muslim immigration ban and the rhetoric surrounding it. The franchise keeps stumbling into the headlines somehow.
Perhaps acknowledging the huge void left by Sutherland’s departure to play a fictional president on another network, the opening narration of the first episode (it airs Sunday night after the Super Bowl on Fox; ensuing episodes will air Mondays at 8pm) is split between Hawkins, who tells you the hour that the episode covers, and Otto, who explains that events unfold in real time. This suggests more of a two-hander approach than 24 ever took in the Jack Bauer days, but the episodes (I’ve seen the first three) are all structured pretty much as before.
That split intro is the closest 24: Legacy — created by franchise veterans Manny Coto and Evan Katz — comes to trying to change the formula, and even that’s gone by the second episode. It’s the same show it always was, full of characters who will always make the dumbest decision possible as the only way to extend the plot, or else be so boxed in by circumstances that the dumbest decision is the only one available to them — “There’s no time for that,” Eric complains at one point when someone suggests a more sensible course of action — and where the action is split among many locales to better fudge the real time aspects of it. Most of the non-Carter stories are pretty dire, including Nicole hiding out with Eric’s drug kingpin brother Isaac (Ashley Thomas) because there’s no one else to whom he can entrust her safety, Smits (bringing an end to his recent streak of instantly improving every show he appears on) mainly evoking memories of his more entertaining run for the presidency on West Wing, and a jaw-droppingly stupid subplot about a terror cell at a local high school, because somehow the 24 writers learned zero lessons from Kim Bauer.
24‘s gonna 24, only with Carter in place of Jack, and some combo of Rebecca and her former analyst Andy (Dan Bucatinsky) in place of Chloe, helping our hero break through all official channels and semblance of logic because the ticking clock forces them to. And Hawkins, unfortunately, isn’t up for carrying this whole silly, creaky enterprise. He wisely doesn’t try to ape Sutherland’s hair-trigger intensity, but his cool reserve isn’t at all a fit for the over-the-top doings around him, and at times makes Carter seem far more passive than he needs to for a story that has to keep chugging along.
Being the star of 24 is almost as impossible a job as what Jack Bauer had to pull off every season, and one that only a handful of actors alive at any given time — and willing to commit to a broadcast network drama — can actually do and make the material seem even vaguely real and unmanipulative. As good as Yvonne Strahovski was as Jack’s Live Another Day sidekick, for instance, I fear she’d be just as at sea as Hawkins is, had they chosen to build the new show around her.
There will be old-school 24 fans who will surely thrill to every moment where a character makes a bad decision, where a CTU manager gets incapacitated in his own office, or where there are allusions to the original series. (One of the CTU analysts is cousin to the late Edgar Stiles, and Tony Almeida will be back at some point, though he won’t have to return from the dead like he did the last time.) They love the hits, and maybe can even get used to the new guy performing them.
But this material has seen better days, and 24: Legacy makes clearer than ever how much Kiefer Sutherland was needed to sell it.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com