“This place is a tomb,” says haunted-genius intelligence analyst Will Travers (The Pacific’s James Badge Dale) in the first episode of Rubicon, the seductive new paranoid conspiracy series on AMC. It gets off to a notably gloomy start, even depressive in its brown on gray color scheme. The Manhattan waterfront office of the American Policy Institute (API), the fictional data aggregation agency Travers works for, certainly looks like a catacomb. Director Alan Coulter, a veteran of The Sopranos, fills every room with such deep pools of shadow that there always seems to be a pall of smoke hovering against the ceiling. Before the end of the episode the pall has settled into Travers’ soul, still a closely-guarded shrine to the wife and child he lost on 9/11.
I am a good match for Rubicon because of my long-standing devotion to both The X-Files and 24, shows that this one honors mostly by counterexample. In contrast to the high-tech omniscience of 24’s surveillance and computer technology, API is so low-tech and paper-cluttered that if we blink we may think we’ve watching a period piece--specifically one of the jumpy paranoid twitch fests of the 1970s, such as The Parallax View and The Conversation, that are the show’s avowed inspirations. (It’s a shock to see a character writing a field report on a Mac, here, rather than a battered Underwood.)
And while Rubicon has its very own cigarette-smoking man (a deeply untrustworthy Michael Cristofer), as well as a truth-is-out-there-quality motto (“They hide in plain sight”), it establishes within a few minutes that the slowly unfolding shadow government conspiracy, seemingly concocted by a group of men in expensive overcoats who drink scotch in hotel rooms, a plot that has been puppet-mastering international events since at least the 1980s, is a lethal, real-world menace. If anything, that’s the point: the truth is not “out there,” it’s been right in front of us all along.
Unlike the bedeviled protagonists in A Beautiful Mind and Conspiracy Theory, who walked up to the knife edge separating genius-level pattern recognition from tail-chewing delusion, Dale’s Travers has sane, humane impulses--such as his love for a fallen colleague, his agency mentor and grieving father-in-law (Peter Gerety). In his pained sobriety Travers is anything but a wacko. He might be happier if he was. Will’s surmise that a group of interlocking crossword puzzles in major newspapers are being used to transmit “go codes” to covert operatives is quickly confirmed, when a brutal execution at a distance is carried out with the casual brutality of a giant swatting a fly.
The central through-line is (or should be) the reawakening, or emotional re-birth, of Will Travers, as the truths his restless intellect reveals pull him out of his own head and back into contact with reality. The ground work been laid, as well, for several serviceable sub-plots, one involving the patient romantic aspirations of a watchful co-worker (Jessica Collins), the other centering on the workplace conflicts that arise when Travers is reluctantly promoted into his mentor’s supervisory position.
These first two episodes paint a broad, generic picture of where the show is headed while filling in hardly any details. Beyond engineering a couple of revenge kills we have no idea what the Four Leaf Clover Cabal is up to. The playfulness evident in the show’s occasional flashes of deadpan workplace comedy, and in the sly choice of character names such as Rhumor and MacGaffin, is a good sign, I think. Nothing would kill this show more quickly than political sententiousness. If the history of TV has taught us anything, it’s that people love to be kept guessing, at least for while, but they can’t stand being lectured.
The LAT's Robert Lloyd writes that viewer patience will be rewarded.