AMC hasn’t used the “TV for movie people” slogan in a while, but it absolutely applies to the channel’s three current series. “Mad Men” is not only set in the era from which AMC once upon a time drew most of its film library, but shows the same kind of classical filmmaking aesthetic. “Breaking Bad” often looks like a Coen brothers film, and its creator frequently references “Scarface” and “The Godfather” as inspiration.
And AMC’s latest series “Rubicon” (which debuts Sunday at 8 p.m.) is so devoted to the slow-burning, grey style of ‘70s paranoid conspiracy thrillers like “The Parallax View,” “All the President’s Men” or “The Conversation” that in one episode its hero actually meets a source in an underground D.C. parking garage, just like Robert Redford did with Deep Throat.
That hero, Will Travers (James Badge Dale), even has roughly the same job Redford had in “Three Days of the Condor.” Will works in the spy game, but he’s not a spy. He’s a data analyst for the independently-run American Policy Institute whose job each day is to comb through a mountain of paperwork looking for patterns that might help the American government figure out what its enemies are up to. The Jason Bourne films and “24” have conditioned us to think of all intelligence work being done via satellite imagery watched by people hunched over laptops, but API is almost charmingly low-tech, to the point where Will discovers the potential conspiracy that drives the show’s plot not via a coded e-mail, but by reading the crossword puzzle in the newspaper.
The show makes intelligence work seem unglamorous, and also dangerous for your mental health. The sterile, anonymous-looking API offices are full of damaged people whose brains are full of too much data, and of the knowledge of what that data is used for.
Midway through the pilot episode(*), Will pays a visit to retired analyst Ed Bancroft (Tony winner Roger Robinson). Ed was legendary for his ability to crack codes - until, Will explains, “the codes cracked you like an egg.” Now Ed’s a scattered old man hiding out in a house overflowing with books, and Will has a code for him to analyze. Ed is scared of the implications of what Will has and asks him to leave, but as Will moves to pack up his papers, you can tell that a part of Ed desperately wants him to leave them - that even after all these years, and all the pain, his mind is so conditioned for this work that he needs it to complete him.
(*) AMC has actually aired the pilot a few times already, and is going to rerun it at 8 before airing the second episode in the show's regular 9 o'clock timeslot. I'll have a separate post of variable length up Sunday at 10 so you can discuss both in greater detail. For the benefit of people who didn't see either of the sneak previews, watch it online, etc., try to keep your comments non-specific about pilot plot details, okay?
It's a fascinating approach to a very familiar pop culture world, and one with the perfect leading man in James Badge Dale. He actually spent a season on "24" as one of Jack Bauer's partners, but he never quite fit in. What he showed in his turn in HBO's "The Pacific," and again here, is that he's a rare actor who makes you want to watch him think. There are good-sized chunks of "Rubicon" that just feature Will contemplating some new piece of the puzzle he's assembling, and they should get tedious after a while, but there's something very compelling in the way Dale carries himself in silence.
Those long pauses are helped immensely by the work of director of photography Michael Slovis, the genius who makes "Breaking Bad" look so good, and who here turns the lower Manhattan locale into an unsettling maze where it's easy to understand why Will keeps looking over his shoulder.
But even though I'm intrigued by the world, the atmosphere, the look and Dale's performance - along with others from Arliss Howard (as Will's boss Kale, who is either up to something bad or simply creepy by nature) and Dallas Roberts (as Miles, the member of Will's team who has the hardest time getting out of his own head) - I'm still not entirely sold on "Rubicon" after four episodes in the way I was with "Mad Men" or even "Breaking Bad" (where I had some early issues with the show but could see the brilliance of Bryan Cranston).
In terms of storytelling, there's slow and then there's "Rubicon" slow. By the end of four episodes, I had very little sense of this crossword conspiracy that Will is chasing, nor why the show keeps lingering on what's so far a tangentially-related subplot featuring Miranda Richardson as the confused wife of a wealthy, secretive power broker.
It may be that the departure of creator Jason Horwitch after the pilot episode has left replacement Henry Bromell taking his time in re-orienting the series to fit his own vision. It may be that the creative team is dead-serious about maintaining the style and pace of those '70s films. Or it may be that nobody, be it Horwitch or Bromell, knows entirely where this is going, and they're dragging their feet until they figure it out.
Certainly, in this post-"Lost" era, there have been plenty of shows with elaborate conspiracy storylines where the producers didn't appear to have done much advance planning. (Fox's "Vanished" comes immediately to mind as one that didn't pass the smell test, and I have a bad feeling about NBC's "The Event.")
There's a conversation that Will has in the pilot with his mentor David (Peter Gerety) that concerned me. Will presents a piece of intel to David and asks, "What's the big picture here?"
"You'll know soon enough," David assures him.
That's the sort of exchange I've had over the years with many a TV producer, and only a handful were able to back up their words with worthwhile payoffs.
But many of those other shows failed because there wasn't anything to them except the puzzle. You tuned in to see where it was going, and again and again, until you eventually realized it was going nowhere. And whether or not the mystery Will investigates has a satisfying resolution down the line, "Rubicon" already feels like a show that has more to offer.
Beyond what I've already mentioned, the fourth episode demonstrates the series' ability to tell a standalone, almost procedural story unconnected to the bigger picture, as Will goes on a business trip to Washington while his team has to study a pile of data to determine that a suspected terrorist should be made an "irreversible" - which we learn is cold analyst jargon for "people you can't unkill." And that episode also features a marvelously-written speech by the head of API, Truxton Spangler (actor/director Michael Cristofer) comparing the notion of independent intelligence analysis to a compliment your wife might give you about your tie.
In other words, while Will is busy trying to make sense of the puzzle pieces he's stumbled across, "Rubicon" is busy assembling a larger world around him. It's one that doesn't move swiftly, and may ultimately end up in an uninteresting destination, but the world itself, and the people in it, are absorbing enough that I want to stick around to find out.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org