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TERRY GROSS, host:

People who kept their dial tuned to AMC after the season finale of "Breaking Bad" and the season premiere of "Mad Men" may have been surprised to see a sneak preview of AMC's new original series. It's called "Rubicon" and it's a modern-day spy thriller.

On Sunday, AMC presents the first two hours of "Rubicon," and our TV critic, David Bianculli, considers it a triumph.

DAVID BIANCULLI: 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 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.

"Rubicon" is a drama series about the workaday 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-versus-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.

The central character in "Rubicon" is Will Travers, a brilliant intelligence analyst with a tragic past and with 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.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Rubicon")

Mr. JAMES BADGE DALE (Actor): (as Will Travers) David, I think I found a pattern in the big ticket papers. There might be others. I'm not sure, but it's not just the repetition. Three down. Two chambers of the legislative branch - bicameral. Simple enough. Two across. Fillmore. Where the Warlocks, later known as the Grateful Dead, played in San Francisco, but also Millard Fillmore, lard-ass, no-nonsense 13th president. The executive. Four down. Would-be alma mater of felonious record holding wide receiver. Answer: Marshall, as in Randy Moss, Marshall University, Thundering Herd, but also Thurgood Marshall. Judicial. Five down. What do lucky lepidoptera larvae eat? Answer: Marsilea quadrifolia.

Mr. PETER GERETY (Actor): (as David) Which is?

Mr. DALE: (as Will Travers) Four-leaf clover. Our three branches of government are here: legislative, executive, judicial. What or who does that fourth leaf represent and what's the message?

BIANCULLI: Like I said, 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 thriller movies 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 an 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 are - 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 two 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.

GROSS: David Bianculli is TV critic for TVWorthWatching.com and teaches television and film at Rowan University in New Jersey.

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