For fans of espionage thrillers or ticking-time-bomb shows, AMC's "Rubicon" is no "24." It's more cerebral, more deft and obtuse in its depiction of political machinations. It's also a little bit slow, moving at a pace that's far removed from Jack Bauer's near-constant breakneck intensity. That's not necessarily a bad thing, just a cautionary note so viewers don't go into the show with the wrong expectation.
Debuting tonight at 8 with a two-hour premiere, "Rubicon" follows the work of melancholy Will Travers (James Badge Dale, "The Pacific"), an analyst with the murky, independent-but-quasi-governmental American Policy Institute, which sifts through intelligence data in an effort to root out patterns, sharing its findings with assorted government agencies.
Will's boss, David Hadas (Peter Gerety), is also the father of Will's late wife, who died alongside Will's daughter during the 9-11 attacks in New York City. Their relationship is somewhat slippery. When Will presents David with what he believes are coded messages in major newspaper crossword puzzles, David dismisses it -- then shares the evidence with his boss without crediting Will with the discovery.
In addition to "24," "Rubicon" shares some TV DNA with British import "MI-5," but, again, it's less action-packed than that series, which was also about those who do the spying. "Rubicon" is more about people who think -- brainiac analysts who do not go running down streets gun in hand (although far too many scenes show Will strolling down a street, glancing over his shoulder while being followed).
Filmed on location in New York, "Rubicon" is closer tonally to FX's canceled "Damages" than "24." Like "Damages," "Rubicon" begins with parallel and seemingly unconnected stories that will surely merge. In addition to Will's investigations, the series also spends time with Katherine Rhumor (Miranda Richardson), who is mourning the suicide of her husband (Harris Yulin), while investigating the secrets she discovers he was hiding, including a home. "Rubicon" does not share the jumping-through-time structure utilized by "Damages," but a sense of foreboding and unspecified danger hangs over characters in both of these basic cable series.
The role of API remains unclear until the show's fourth hour, airing Aug. 15. Will's co-workers at API include brainy, secretive Miles Fiedler (Dallas Roberts), glum Grant Test (Christopher Evan Welch), new-to-the-team Tanya MacGaffin (Lauren Hodges), and Will's assistant and possible romantic interest, single mom Maggie Young (Jessica Collins).
(Tanya and Maggie look so much alike as to be confused for a single character in the show's first hour, a problem rectified in the second hour when Maggie has lighter hair.)
In addition to weekly tasks with his workmates -- in one episode the team must advise whether the military should go forward with an assassination that may inflict collateral damage -- Will also pursues his own investigation of what could be a vast conspiracy. This plot puts Will in contact with damaged, retired API analyst Ed Bancroft (Roger Robinson, a stand-out among the cast). So many shows use conspiracy plots these days that it has become a bit ho-hum, but the story on "Rubicon" sparks to life when Will and Ed share a scene.
"Rubicon" is at its best in the Aug. 15 hour when Will accompanies API head Truxton Spangler (Michael Cristofer) to Washington for dog-and-pony shows with military and government brass. The episode offers viewers more insight into how API works and with whom it is allied. The episode also gives more screen time to Spangler, a sometimes-jittery oddball who turns out to have more political savvy than his behavior initially suggests.
Spangler lobbies government officials in D.C. that there is greater value in API assessments because analysts working within the system do not make them. Their dispassion makes them trustworthy, he argues. "Rubicon" is somewhat dispassionate, too. It's a little aloof, a spy show without the usual espionage theatrics. That may take some getting accustomed to, but in these early episodes, "Rubicon" makes a strong case that it's a series that's worth the effort.
Rob Owen writes this Sunday TV column for Scripps Howard News Service. Contact him at email@example.com or 412-263-2582. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook. First Published August 1, 2010 4:00 AM