I checked out the 2-hour premiere of AMC's new conspiracy-themed drama "Rubicon" last night (2 million people tuned in, a record for AMC original programming) and really enjoyed it. I was impressed by how entertaining the creators, Jason Horwich and Henry Bromell, managed to make two slowly paced hours so enthralling.
The premise, briefly: Will Travers (played by James Badge Dale), is a mild-mannered widow who works as an analyst for a small, unnamed intelligence agency in New York. They break codes and find out the names of guys who appear in long-lens photographs. When Will's boss is killed in a commuter train accident, the weird crossword puzzle clue Will discovered a few days prior, the one clue that appeared in 11 different newspapers' crossword puzzles on the same day, seems suddenly relevant. The first, subtle shadings that something is off about his boss's death begin to take shape in his mind.
"Rubicon" derives most of its narrative frisson from the dramatic irony of watching Will go about his normal life while we, the audience, know something shadowy and dangerous is playing just beneath the surface of things, contemplating a move that could end Will's life. Watching the show I was reminded at times of 'The Matrix'. One of my favorite sections of that movie are those scenes before Anderson understands the truth of his existence. Now imagine that section expanded to a 13-hour season of television and you've got 'Rubicon', more or less.
One of the reasons why 'Rubicon' is better than your average show is that the show-runners give the audience space to figure out what's going on without beating anyone over the head. One example: early on in episode one, we see Will Travers's boss, David (played by Peter Gerety who "Wire"-freaks will remember as Judge Daniel Phelan) through Will's office window, avoiding the number 13 in the staff parking lot like it's covered in Ebola. He's a superstitious guy, David. Later on, after David's died in the train crash, Will goes back to the train station and finds David's car parked in the parking spot numbered '13'.
There are a number of ways the show could have handled the revelation. What they didn't do was have Will go up to the number, look down at it in disbelief, then cut to a 2-second flash of the earlier scene where David had avoided the '13' in the parking lot. Nor does Will murmur: "But David hated the number thirteen!" The writers handle it subtly, and visually. That whole show don't tell thing. They let us figure it out with Will.
Another thing 'Rubicon' does well is capture the nuances of working in an office. It's actually the dynamic in Will's 4-man analyst unit that's been sticking in my head all day today. It's depiction of working in an office is not satirical or blown up to outlandish proportions, but a look at a real honest-to-God office. The show gives an impression of what it's like to work long days and long weeks with the same idiosyncratic people, how it feels to do mentally draining tasks all day, everyday, and how crushing the pressures from 'the bosses' can seem. Because Will gets promoted halfway through, and this was particularly well done, we see how those pressures seem amplified the higher the corporate ladder one climbs.
My one worry for the show is that it may have the same dramatic longevity of "Prison Break". Once that tattooed freak broke his bro out out of the pen, the wind seemed to go out of the show's sails. Before long they were breaking back into another prison just to break out again. Once 'Rubicon' reveals the conspiracy, where does the show go from there? Does it just go deeper and deeper? Or does it shift from discovering the conspiracy to trying to expose it? And will viewers stay interested if it takes 3 seasons to reveal it?
Bottom-line is this show's got a great tone, great characters, and some nicely played moments of real creepiness. If there existed a world where a powerful, moneyed cabal could plot something of the magnitude of 9/11 without anyone learning the truth, then that is the world 'Rubicon' inhabits. For me, exploring that world has a lot of dramatic potential. I'm looking forward to episode 3.
(The show airs on Sundays at 9PM on AMC for those who're considering setting their DVRs.)