24 Legacy: Does Jack Bauer's Black & White Morality Still Work in 2017?

By Abigail Chandler on at

24 is back, even if Jack Bauer isn’t. With Kiefer Sutherland now saving America from the relative safety of the Oval Office in Designated Survivor, the job of kicking terrorists in the face now falls to Corey Hawkins as Eric Carter, 24: Legacy’s lead.

It’s 16 years since Jack Bauer burst onto our screens, demanding a hacksaw and punching bad guys until they gave up their evil secrets. Part of the show’s success was its unique format, and the presence of a genuine Hollywood star in the lead role – which, back then, was unheard of. But the other reason it become such a hit was something that couldn’t have been predicted. Months after filming started, and less than two months before the first episode aired, 9/11 happened.

Move over, old man.

Suddenly, Americans were hungry for a narrative where the good guys would win, by any means necessary. The latter quarter of 2001 was a time of black and white morals. We didn’t yet know that there were no WMDs in Iraq, or that the ‘war on terror’ would destabilise the Middle East and give rise to ISIS, kicking off a decade and a half of terror attacks across almost the whole planet. We hadn’t foreseen the humanitarian horrors in Syria, or the rise of Islamophobia, or the refugee crisis. Back in 2001, we just wanted to see Kiefer Sutherland try to pull a terrorist’s stomach out through his mouth.

Back then, 24 was cathartic. It was a chance to act out things that real US soldiers and agents couldn’t actually do, due to various human rights conventions - until it turned out that 24 might actually be more accurate than we ever thought. After that all the torture pretty much lost its appeal.

The world of 2017 isn’t black and white (to be fair, neither was the world of 2001, but it was far easier to pretend it was). In a world where the US President is happy to endorse torture and discriminate against visitors to his country based on their nationality, we no longer want to see CTU agents beating up people from ill-defined Middle Eastern regions.

24 was always careful to mix up the nationalities of its villains – more often than not, big baddies would turn out to be American or Russian (so not dissimilar to 2017, then...), but every season would feature your classic Arabic terrorist, even if they turned out to be merely subplot or misdirection.

These TV Presidents set unrealistic expectations of how not-evil we expect real Presidents to be.

24: Legacy similarly opens with a bunch of Middle Eastern guys hunting down and killing various American black-ops soldiers in their homes. There’s no telling yet just what direction the show will go in. Perhaps it will pull a switcheroo and reveal that these terrorists are actually the good guys after all. But, nonetheless, it is putting the image of Middle Eastern terrorists back out there, at a time when we could really do with avoiding perpetuating that stereotype.

There are ways in which 24: Legacy is trying to be a bit more progressive. Eric Carter is the show’s first black lead. American-Puerto Rican Jimmy Smits plays a seemingly-decent politician who is running for President. A woman, Miranda Otto, is running CTU (sort of). And yet the show still falls into the trap of its black male characters all being either soldiers or gangsters.

If it was really interested in being progressive, it might move away from Middle Eastern terrorists and torture, and instead look at the perils of far-right radicalisation and white supremacists. That’s what’s scary these days, in the Trump era. But 24 knows its audience – a lot of whom would have voted for Trump – and on the basis of the first episode they’re happy to keep playing to the expected conventions of the show.

Perhaps I’m doing the show a disservice and it will slowly remind viewers of all the reasons why evidence obtained under torture is inadmissible in court, and why torture is morally wrong. But in a world where people are using that old ‘what-if-a-baby-was-strapped-to-a-bomb’ thought experiment to justify the use of torture, it’s probably best to steer clear of the topic altogether. But instead, with its ticking clock and insanely high stakes, 24 is often the very embodiment of that ridiculous thought experiment. And that’s not a position that should be reinforced right now.

24 was a product of a time when America was bruised and reactionary, and most of Europe followed suit. Now we’re seeing the consequences of that time, and 24: Legacy seems more like a piece of ‘fake news’ than a fun romp.