Will Travers (James Badge Dale) is a brilliant intelligence analyst with a tragic past — who can quickly spot patterns emerging in seemingly random things.
Will Travers (James Badge Dale) is a brilliant intelligence analyst with a tragic past — who can quickly spot patterns emerging in seemingly random things. AMC
Before I describe what Rubicon is, let me make clear what it isn't. It isn't the kind of show you can watch while multitasking and still hope to make any sense of it, much less enjoy it. You have to pay attention — and even then, many of the things you're looking at won't be clear at first.
But that doesn't only relate to the show — it's also what the show is about. And that's why, if you give it a chance, Rubicon will earn its way onto your have-to-watch list.
The series dramatizes the workaday life of analysts at a fictional present-day American spy agency called the American Policy Institute — API, for short. The API is a sort of central clearinghouse for intelligence gathering, a way to make sense of all the conversations, observations and evidence collected by the FBI, CIA and others.
Every night, these agencies pass on their findings to the API — and the API's job is to sift through the piles, detect patterns and connect all the dots. Other spies get to drive the Aston Martins and bed enemy agents; these guys, back in a nondescript New York office building, do all the drudge work — and the really serious thinking.
But they all have complicated, messed-up personal lives — and in what's probably an occupational hazard, they have a lot of trust issues, too. With good reason: Some of the co-workers are spying on each other, and, as Rubicon begins, more than one high-level spy suddenly dies.
This spy-vs.-spy stuff has echoes of ABC's Alias, but its true TV ancestor is the fabulous British miniseries Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. It isn't the action that gets you. It's the suspense, the suspicion, the paranoia. Except it's not paranoia if they really are out to get you. And in Rubicon, they are.
Protagonist Will Travers, a brilliant intelligence analyst with a tragic past, has just one true friend at the agency: his boss, David. Will is played by James Badge Dale, last seen as Leckie in the HBO miniseries The Pacific; David is played by Peter Gerety, that fabulous character actor from Homicide: Life on the Street, The Wire and elsewhere.
Will is comfortable enough to come to David with anything — even something as seemingly random as an odd pattern he finds in crossword puzzles published by different newspapers the same day. The clues in those puzzles aren't the same — but in a few select instances, the answers are — and patterns start to emerge.
David Hadas (Peter Gerety) is Will's boss — and entertains all of Will's thoughts regarding possible patterns.
David Hadas (Peter Gerety) is Will's boss — and entertains all of Will's thoughts regarding possible patterns. AMC
These guys are smart — and so is Rubicon. Jason Horwitch, who wrote a clever FX telemovie about the Pentagon Papers, created the show, and its executive producer is writer-director Henry Bromell. I never really got Bromell's Carnivale series for HBO, but I've loved lots of the other stuff on which he's worked, including Homicide and Northern Exposure.
The creators of this new TV series are upfront about being inspired by some of the greatest conspiracy thrillers of the 1970s: All the President's Men, Three Days of the Condor, and that underrated classic The Parallax View. But Rubicon isn't just a homage — it's a much needed update. In an era when we're all being watched, one way or another, the question "Who's watching the watchers?" becomes even more vital.
The more time you spend with the watchers at API, the more fragile they seem — and the more fascinating. Lauren Hodges from In Treatment plays one of Will's co-workers, and the widow of one of the early fatalities is played by Miranda Richardson.
I've seen the first four episodes of Rubicon, and each one is a little more frightening and mind-blowing. Episode 2 is the one that hooks you, so you have to be a little patient. But after that, I doubt you'll ever look at crossword puzzles, or four-leaf clovers, the same way again.
David Bianculli is TV critic for TVWorthWatching.com and teaches television and film at Rowan University in New Jersey.