AMC’s Rubicon: Pattern Recognition, Left-Wing 24?

by David Chute
July 31, 2010 12:00 PM
6 Comments
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Thompson on Hollywood
The cable series Rubicon debuts Sunday night. Reviewer David Chute recommends it: "After the two excellent back-to-back episodes that comprise its Sunday night 'premiere event,' Rubicon promises to be a worthy stable-mate for the channel’s Emmy-dominating Mad Men and Breaking Bad."

“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.

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6 Comments

  • Joe Hunt | September 4, 2010 9:32 AMReply

    I had the opportunity to have a small role, in the final episode for the first season, as an extra. This is one of the best crafted tv series that I've seen. It feels like it was peeled from the pages a feature film made in the 70's. Rubicon is tv verison of My all-time favorite "3 Days Of The Condor" I love this show. Keep up the good work. THIS SHOW IS A KEEPER!!!

  • Tulkinghorn | August 3, 2010 2:29 AMReply

    Well... Irony and distance count for a lot in complex political dramas

    (There are lots of counter-examples, of course, like Z and Battle of Algiers, but bear with me here.)

    24 is an interesting example of the problem -- a delicate balancing act, not always successful, between Bauer as hero and Bauer as psychopath. I believe that the producers of 24 took Bauer much less seriously than many of the fans...but whenever they began to show belief in the cause, 24 became unwatchably leaden and humorless.

    And for conspiracy dramas made by true believers, you only need watch the death spiral of Oliver Stone from the po' faced and not aging well JFK, to the hymn of praise to totalitarianism of his latest effort, to his "Jews run the media" rant of a couple of weeks ago....

  • DavidC | August 2, 2010 9:56 AMReply

    What bothers me about this is the element of pre-judgment, and the implication that of course political "truth" automatically trumps entertainment every time. I fervently don't believe that. I think the sense of shared good will fostered by entertaiment makes the world a better place. There were lefties who could never bring themselves to watch "24," and I'm sure we don't want to go down that road.

    The underlying question is, more or less, how far are we willing to go with the idea that any political POV can be grist for suspense, as long as it's effectively handled? The pulse-pounding adventures of an Afrikaans secret police officer bravely enforcing apartied would probably find only a niche audience in the US. The avowed convictions of the "Rubicon" showrunners could add urgency and passion to the show or weigh it down with self-rightiousness. Time will tell.

    The charge of humorlessness, however, is simply wrong. The office sequences, especially in episode 2, actually seem to have been modelled on some of TVs classic workplace comedies.

    And now that the show has aired I can add a word about the subplot launched in the very first scene, when a conspiritor played by Harris Yulin recives coded instructions ordering him to committ suicide, and promptly complies. The dead man seems to have left clues behind for his wife (Miranda Richardson), and her investgation proceeds in parallel to the one Will Travers is secretly conducting. Anticipating the convergence of lonmg-stemmed plot threads is one of the great pleasures of long form television, and it gives me hope for the long term watchibility of the show.

  • Tulkinghorn | August 1, 2010 2:54 AMReply

    As one critic wrote:

    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.

  • DavidC | August 1, 2010 2:25 AMReply

    I care almost not at all these about the endless recycling of familiar political quarrels. The "Rubicon" crew can believe anything they please, as far as I'm concerned, as long as they keep the show twisty and smart. Watch this space.

  • Tulkinghorn | July 31, 2010 12:41 PMReply

    Nancy deWolfe Smith in Friday's Wall Street Journal agrees with your last point, but thinks it's too late:

    "Mr. Bromell cuts to the quick (in the press notes) and informs us that " 'Rubicon' was born from the belief that we in the United States could wake up one day soon and find our democracy gone, not vanquished by an army, but by an almost-invisible collusion between business and government." In the show, he promises, we will see "Individuals traveling through the looking glass into a world of abject moral confusion, where nothing is what it seems and no one can be trusted."

    Oy. Some of the old movies that allegedly inspired "Rubicon," such as "The Ipcress File" (1965) and "The Conversation" (1974), are indeed classics about snoops who get their heads messed with. But the shadowy conspiracies the guys in these films stumbled across were largely what Hitchcock called MacGuffins: They made no real sense and didn't need to. The directors were more interested in style and atmosphere than in pontificating.

    ...it appears that "Rubicon" actually is a riff on the theme that the world is made bad by the latest incarnation of the Trilateral Commission, some cabal of old (white) guys who use war and terrorism to line their pockets.

    While some of us would rather watch nail polish dry than hear about all that yet again, clearly there is a market for this sort of thing, which could be described as an "X Files" without the laughs. "

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