First they stole the Declaration of Independence. Then they kidnapped the President of the United States. Now the National Treasure franchise is attempting to pull off another nearly impossible feat: making a good legacy sequel TV show.
Enter National Treasure: Edge of History. The Disney+ sequel series continues the story of the National Treasure franchise with a new cast of leading characters. Created by Cormac and Marianne Wibberley, the screenwriters of the first two films, Edge of History exists purely because of the love people have for the original movies. They were absolute classics for kids growing up in the early 2000s. Their popularity only grew as we entered the internet age and “I’m going to steal the Declaration of Independence” became a commonly shared meme. Bonkers plots, grand American conspiracies, and a stellar, insane Nick Cage performance wraps it all together.
The National Treasure films were some of the last of a dying genre: the child-friendly adventure film. The movies were obviously silly, and mixed historical facts with elaborate conspiracy fiction. They somehow managed to make the founding fathers seem cool long before Hamilton came along (everyone is cooler when they belong to a secret society). But the films were also lightning in a bottle. Could a new series, not starring the beloved characters of the original, recreate that magic?
It’s hard to create a new protagonist, especially when you’re following Nicolas Cage. But Lisette Olivera is a golden find. She stars as Jess Valenzuela, an aspiring cryptographer and devoted puzzle solver. The child of a treasure hunter father and Latin America historian mother, Jess gets caught up in a hunt for a lost Aztec treasure. Olivera’ charisma makes Jess an endlessly watchable character. As a DACA recipient, Jess’s relationship to America as an immigrant offers a different angle on how someone comes to learn American history and culture. It’s the kind of update that justifies the show’s existence, offering a fresh take with an excellent rising star to lead her own show.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the new supporting characters. Jess’s friend group is the worst. They’re burdened with such heavy-handed attempts to be modern that it comes off as cringe-inducing. Her best friend Tasha (Zuri Reed) is a streamer/influencer, Oren (Antonio Cipriano) is a sneakerhead, and Ethan (Jordan Rodrigues) is a character that only exists to be mad he’s not dating Jess. Constant references to doing “Tik Tok dances” and wanting to “go viral” are nails on a chalkboard to anyone with a working knowledge of the internet. Tasha gets the worst of it, with dialogue that feels ripped straight from popular Tweets. She’s supposed to offer an opposing perspective on America, someone politically active and critical of a system that has oppressed minorities for centuries, but every line is so poorly conceived it feels insulting to anyone who shares her point of view.
There’s also Liam (Jake Austin Walker). The grandson of FBI Agent Peter Sadusky (Harvey Keitel, reprising his role), Liam exists only to sing country-tinged pop covers of various songs. I watched 4 episodes and he sang an almost full-length song in 3 of them. The show stops dead for his ballads, completely ruining any momentum. In what is perhaps true Disney fashion, his appearance feels more like a promotion for the actor’s musical career than a character that should be in a treasure hunting show.
A few characters from the original films appear in Edge of History. Harvey Keitel is in the first episode, and his character is vital to the plot of the series. He doesn’t get much to do, but it’s nice to see him. Justin Bartha’s return as Riley Poole is the best (and rightly most anticipated) inclusion, though. A true relic from the “quirky side character” era of film, he’s a sight for sore eyes and an individual I’ve truly missed seeing. Sure, they also make him into a podcaster, but he’s there and it’s great!
Yet National Treasure is really about one thing only: elaborate quests with insane puzzles. The mystery of Edge of History is a lost golden treasure hidden by a secret society of women to protect it from the Conquistadors and any other invaders. Jess and her friends want to find the treasure to prove her parents were right about its existence. But they’re racing against billionaire Billie Pearce (Catherine Zeta-Jones), one of the only characters who understands how goofy a show like this should be. The conceit of the treasure is a solid excuse to explore more of American history outside the colonial era. Jess’s motivation makes sense, the elements of a good hunt are all there, and they’ve got a perfectly sinister antagonist. It’s going to be fun, right?
Somehow Edge of History loses track of the best thing about National Treasure. The lack of actual puzzle solving and treasure hunting in the show is shocking. The films had everyone trotting around America for cryptic riddles yet the characters of Edge of History are often confined to twiddling their thumbs and developing boring romantic subplots. The show’s desire to expose real forgotten parts of history has the consequence of erasing a lot of the fun nonsense that made the original films so beloved. Edge of History often feels too embarrassed to embrace being ridiculous.
That brings us to Edge of History’s biggest problem: it shouldn’t have been a TV show. Edge of History has some of the biggest “this could’ve been a movie” energy of any show released this year. There just isn’t enough material to fill each hour. Scenes meander to a flat end, characters repeat themselves over and over, and there just aren’t enough puzzles for anyone to solve. It feels like it’s only a TV show because TV shows are the hot thing right now. A tight Edge of History movie could have been a fun Disney+ offering. Instead it’s a TV show unsure of what it’s supposed to be hunting for. Is it supposed to build something original? Create an opening for a new section of the franchise? Just pad out Disney+’s catalog with a still-beloved IP?
I loved the National Treasure movies growing up. I bought a copy of the Declaration of Independence when I went to D.C. purely so I could pretend like I stole it and constantly quote Nick Cage to my friends. A fun treasure hunting show with Olivera at the head could be the goofy breath of fresh air TV desperately needs. I gave this show every benefit of the doubt, I wanted to get on board so badly, but so far the show isn’t a treasure worth searching for. Edge of History needs fun historic riddles with zany characters. But instead the show is just riddled with missed opportunities.
National Treasure: Edge of History premieres Wednesday, December 14th on Disney+
Leila Jordan is a writer and former jigsaw puzzle world record holder. Her work has appeared in Paste Magazine and FOX Digital. To talk about all things movies, TV, and useless trivia you can find her @galaxyleila
For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.