Bringing this franchise to the small screen fails to unearth excitement or fresh storytelling.
If the National Treasure movies had existed in the ’80s, Disney totally would’ve made a TV show spin-off in the ’90s. They would’ve shifted to younger (and cheaper) teenage actors and depicted them scouring the globe for treasures connected to significant historical landmarks. It would’ve made a decent, but not exceptional mark on pop culture back in the day and now sit close to the hearts of countless 25 to 35-year-olds.
Alas, National Treasure and its sequel, National Treasure: Book of Secrets, were made in the naughty aughties. That means we still get that TV series, National Treasure: Edge of History, but now it is a streamer and stretches a film’s length of plot over a season’s worth of television. Yippee.
National Treasure: Edge of History gets off on the right foot, opting to focus on a new character radically different from original National Treasure protagonist Ben Gates. Jess Valenzuela (Lisette Olivera, formerly Lisette Alexis) is a DACA recipient who lives in a lovely loft in Baton Rouge, Louisiana with her best friends Tasha Rivers (Zuri Reed), Oren (Antonio Cipriano), and Ethan (Jordan Rodrigues). Despite the state of her housing, the eagle-eyed American history expert isn’t in a great place. After her treasure hunter dad’s death when she was still a baby, Valenzuela was raised by a single mom. Unfortunately, her mom has now passed as well, a year before the show opener.
A chance encounter with National Treasure franchise fixture Peter Sadusky (Harvey Keitel) sends our hero down a rabbit hole. It’s one that forces her to violate a pledge she made to her mother by embracing her father’s calling. Scouring down clues and important landmarks doesn’t just put our protagonist on a path to discover more about her mysterious father. It also places her on the wrong side of the nefarious Billie Pearce (Catherine Zeta-Jones), sporting a very pronounced blonde hairstyle and a violent determination to out-treasure hunt Valenzuela.
Shifting the focus of the National Treasure franchise onto younger characters is in the mold of other past TV spin-offs and modern “legacy sequel” properties like Star Wars: The Force Awakens. It’s not a bad idea, ensuring that Edge of History offers something different for possible new fans. In particular, focusing the show on an American immigrant provides a unique perspective on what’s historically and globally “important” compared to Ben Gates and company’s almost uniformly white, natural-born citizenry. Show creators Cormac and Marianne Wibberley–writers of the original films–are on the right track.
In execution, unfortunately, Edge of History falls flat on almost every level. The transition to television means the fun of juxtaposing recognizable landmarks with convoluted treasure-hunting poppycock gets tossed. In their place stand generic gift shops and a dingy underpass. They’re all captured with that 2013 ABC drama look: overly bright lighting and unimaginative digital camerawork. Episode two sees an especially grievous example as a supposedly intimate conversation between Valenzuela and Ethan at a storage unit facility gets upstaged by laughably bad green-screen work. They couldn’t find a U-Haul place to shoot at for an afternoon?!?
In execution, unfortunately, Edge of History falls flat on almost every level.
Even worse than the visuals, though, is the writing. The first two episodes come off as a bunch of middle-aged writers trying to figure out how 2016 teenagers talk. An extended conversation in the second outing involves Valenzuela yelling, “I am not stanning!”. The primary character trait of Rivers is that she’s a YouTuber. Multiple references to Hamilton pepper the series premiere. Worse, the style turns nearly every character into comic relief ala the films’ Riley (Justin Bartha). All the various sarcastic, pop culture-laden quips quickly blur into one another, robbing these new individuals of a chance to make a name for themselves.
It’s all so frustrating! There are so many incredibly interesting ways to integrate aspects of modern teenage life into fun standalone treasure-hunting adventures. Tragically, this program uses almost current slang and references as window-dressing for generic storylines and conversations.
The music feels a bit more of the moment with most tracks coming from the past two years. Unfortunately, the needle drops are so rampant one can’t help but roll their eyes.
That’s a crying shame because there are talented people involved here. Director Mira Nair helms the series premiere. It’s quite a get and only her second foray into television directing. However, there’s no real trace of her inventive filmmaking. In front of the camera, Olivera has flashes of charm in her lead performance, but opportunities to flourish are limited. Similarly, Keitel lends some welcome gravitas to his expository dialogue, but he’s barely in the show.
Most damning, treasure hunting is shockingly absent from the first two episodes. Instead, tepid dialogue between the protagonist and her friends dominates, occasionally interrupted by moments of cat-and-mouse sparring between Olivera and Zeta-Jones. While not a bad idea to do National Treasure televised adventures, Edge of History fails the concept with little personality or sense of fun.
National Treasure: Edge of History starts digging December 14 on Disney+.