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At least Disney’s National Treasure TV show gets the escape rooms right

Where is the Declaration of Independence in all this?

Jess (Lisette Alexis) examining a large, spherical artifact in the Disney Plus National Treasure series Photo: Brian Roedel/Disney
Zosha Millman (she/her) manages TV coverage at Polygon as TV editor, but will happily write about movies, too. She’s been working as a journalist for more than 10 years.

Let’s get this out of the way: Disney Plus’ new series National Treasure: Edge of History is not the successor to National Treasure anyone hoped for. It’s not even really stepping to National Treasure: Book of Secrets, the sequel that doesn’t involve stealing historical documents (but does involve some light kidnapping of the president).

Instead, Edge of History resets as a “requel,” picking up with new character Jess (Lisette Alexis) as she struggles to unravel the treasure hunting legacy her father (also a new character) left behind. Hot on her heels is Billie Pearce (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a more nefarious treasure seeker who’s eager to find the Aztec relic and more than willing to use underhanded techniques to beat Jess there. Unfortunately for her, Jess is an expert puzzle-solver and a history buff, something we get to know about her character very early on, when she’s confidently breaking down Freemason history to her boss, or else solving either the most simple or elaborate escape room of all time.

Creators Cormac and Marianne Wibberley make some obvious moves to update the National Treasure franchise in real time here, with Jess being a DREAMer and more concretely rooting the national treasure in the Indigenous history of America. The relic she’s seeking is just one of three, a product of the Aztec, Inca, and Mayan network that worked together to hide Montezuma’s gold. It’s also almost the most difficult part to swallow.

No one is here to knock the history chops of National Treasure; this is a film series that delivers strictly on the basis of Nicolas Cage’s cool and confident line reading of “I’m going to steal the Declaration of Independence.” The original movie was a certified goofy gem that had a few historical funny bones in its body and that was it.

Jess (Lisette Alexis) and Peter Sadusky (Harvey Keitel) standing and talking intently Photo: Brian Roedel/Disney

Edge of History invites a bit more scrutiny: By updating the treasure hunters trope to make it more progressive, it paints with a wide brush, whitewashing the Indigenous communities ostensibly at the heart of the story. It’s Disney Channel Prestige, taking its fluffy source material seriously while accidentally homogenizing Latin American Indigenous cultures at the same time. Sure, it’s trying, but in execution, it’s a glancing cultural erasure that capitalizes on the moment. It might be a bit easier to take if the rest of the show wasn’t existing in the uncanny valley between irony and sincerity, but this is a franchise built on small graces being granted. The simple thrill of a treasure map on the back of one of the nation’s founding documents now feels like a higher-stakes swing, and thus, a slightly bigger miss.

So if we posit that National Treasure is mostly not trying to sweat the history of it all too closely, we can focus on the parts that matter: the escape room and all its puzzles.

Edge of History joins a recent streak of entertainment that makes escape rooms look like the sickest, most impossibly complicated puzzles of all time. From the Escape Room movies to just the one-off TV plots of this or Brooklyn Nine-Nine, escape rooms on TV tend to rely on a lot of outside knowledge in a way real-life escape rooms just don’t.

In the pilot episode, Jess and her friends are locked in two jail cells, complete with fake prison uniforms to complete the aesthetic. The room they’re in has never been beaten, making Jess’ MacGyver-like ingenuity the key to their escape. Which, to be clear, involves getting a screwdriver hidden in a pipe and tying the bedsheets together to make a rope with the screwdriver at the end, all so they can swing to pull a lever to let them out. Incredible design; possibly a lawsuit waiting to happen depending on how that swing goes. Certainly a series of angry Yelp reviews when the solution gets revealed.

Jess (Lisette Alexis) and her friend Tasha (Zuri Reed) sitting in the back of a van Photo: Brian Roedel/Disney

It’s remarkably elaborate, and, of course, almost exclusively there to demonstrate Jess’ abilities and set the stage for her solving several-hundred-year-old Freemasons puzzles with ease. This is the reality that National Treasure: Edge of History occupies most frequently: a puzzle-lover’s dream of rigging up the perfect way to slice through dovetailing mysteries that beguile everyone around you. Add in the swashbuckling exploits of a Disney treasure hunt and it’s pretty easy to see the appeal. Edge of History’s problem is that these puzzles often seem built exclusively for Jess, and her knowledge base is almost reverse engineered for this perfect adventure, making it less of a mystery you’re engaging with and more of a tow rope of a narrative.

Edge of History would be more fun if it always felt like that escape room: bizarrely byzantine and knowingly silly, giving the audience some grist to laugh along or actually engage with. Too often the show roots against itself by trying to be more progressive without actually acknowledging what that means, in the story or the broader world. That’s a tough line to walk in the world of National Treasure, with all its hidden spring-loaded drawers, encoded messages, and, yes, “I’m gonna steal the Declaration of Independence” declarations. Like fictional escape rooms, they are (probably) a story fabrication that needs to be leapfrogging from enigma to enigma.

It’s possible as Edge of History goes on it manages to land on a narrative that is both more hip to the times and still gets at the dauntless confidence of the historical treasure hunt genre. But in its early episodes, that is one puzzle the Disney Plus requel can’t solve.

National Treasure: Edge of History’s first two episodes are now streaming on Disney Plus. New episodes air Wednesdays.

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