A new day has dawned for the “24” franchise, but its reboot, “24: Legacy,” which debuted after Super Bowl LI, perpetuates one of the most troubling themes of the show’s original run ― Muslim terrorism.
Millions of Americans watched the New England Patriots beat the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday. Afterward, the next bit of programming they saw depicted an unidentified Middle Eastern man murdering a white American family in the name of someone called Sheik Bin-Khalid. The terrorist shoots the father in the head, and the camera pans to reveal the bloodied bodies of a mother and child as he exits the home to coordinate a devastating attack on American soil. This reductive depiction of Muslims wasn’t the only one in the episode, but it was certainly the most explicit. And it was first.
The Super Bowl will probably afford “24: Legacy” the largest audience it will ever see, as the game historically gives the show after it a massive ratings boost. In 2016, an episode of “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” that aired directly after the Super Bowl was watched by more than 20 million people. “24: Legacy” will likely receive a similar showing when final ratings are reported.
That’s why it matters that the show’s producers chose to peddle the same fuzzy representations of Muslims we’ve come to associate with the franchise in the premiere of “24: Legacy,” which continues Monday night. Executive producer and showrunner Manny Coto addressed concerns by stating Sunday’s episode brought an intentionally “inflammatory” start to the series, hinting that future episodes will reveal new truths that complicate our perception of events.
“If we didn’t know the way the entire season went and how it came out the other side, we might be concerned,” Coto told The Hollywood Reporter. “But here’s the thing: The story of this season deliberately starts on an image that you might call jingoistic, expected and possibly inflammatory. We weren’t trying to be inflammatory, but it’s what the story itself called for.”
Yet for many Americans ― likely millions ― that violent first image will be part of the only episode they’ll see. However the show develops over the season is inconsequential.
Social media users immediately took issue with the decision to center the terrorist plot around extremist Muslims, as both “24” Season 2 and 4 hinged on similar threats. Some rejected what they saw as an “old and tired” stereotype seen on FOX too often, while others said the show made for “Islamophobic” and even dangerous TV.
In the wake of President Donald Trump’s executive order barring people from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the U.S., should networks have patience for this kind of representation? (The immigration ban was halted by a federal judge on Friday; Trump’s response suggests the fight isn’t quite over.) The political atmosphere in which “24: Legacy” has premiered has already sparked an increase in violence against Muslims, eerily mimicking the sentiment prevalent in the months after 9/11, when the original series made its debut. For many Americans who even appear to be Muslim, the stakes are high.
Over its eight seasons, “24” helped perfect the “radical Muslim” caricature with ill-defined foreign baddies bent on America’s destruction. Backlash was particularly strong in the show’s second season, the first to revolve around a Muslim terrorist plot. An ad campaign promoting Season 2 plastered the words “They could be next door”― referring to Muslims ― on billboards nationwide, a move that later prompted an apology from creator Howard Gordon. A couple seasons later, however, the series fulfilled the promise of those billboards when Jonathan Ahdout and Shohreh Aghdashloo played mother-and-son terrorists living in a largely white suburb.
The image of the Muslim extremist next door is total nonsense and taps into fears that are used to justify acts of violence against these communities. Reminder: you are more than likely to be killed by your own furniture than by a terrorist. After the episode, the show released a PSA in response to its portrayal of Muslims that emphasized how American Muslims are part of the fight against terrorism.
Despite criticism, ratings for “24” were consistently impressive throughout its run. The series reached its ratings peak in 2006, with more than 17 million people watching the Season 5 premiere. The franchise was successful enough to spawn the TV movie “Redemption” between Seasons 6 and 7, as well as a shortened season titled “24: Live Another Day,” the last to feature the show’s original hero, Kiefer Sutherland as Jack Bauer.
If Muslim terrorists have been part of the show’s successful formula, “24: Legacy” hasn’t forgotten. The primary threat in the new season appears to be the activation of a large number of sleeper cells around the country, including one involving a young Chechen immigrant who is planning to bomb her high school. The show’s other Muslim character is the campaign manager of a presidential hopeful whose loyalties are questioned once a photo surfaces showing her at an anti-Western mosque.
Every presumably Muslim character in “24: Legacy” is either directly involved in terrorist acts or accused of being complicit in some way. Accepting a show where Muslims are American-killing terrorists as casual entertainment runs the risk of legitimizing the all-too-real discrimination Muslim people face in and outside U.S. borders. Now more than ever, vigilance is necessary when it comes to consuming media, regardless of intention. “24: Legacy” might have only just begun its season, but for many watching at home its clock has already run out.
“24: Legacy” continues its premiere Monday at 8 p.m. on Fox.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that Kal Penn appeared in Season 4 of “24.” The actor who played Shohreh Aghdashloo’s son that season was Jonathan Ahdout.