Television Review: “Rubicon”

By Jimmy Gilmore

AMC is on a mission, or maybe it’s more of a revolt, against the major networks. Each new show it brings to the table seems to be a direct refutation to the kind of programs ABC, NBC and their ilk are marketing.

With “Breaking Bad,” they melded family drama and drug drama. With “Mad Men,” they dared viewers to watch a period drama with psychologically complex characters. Now, with “Rubicon,” they’re staging an alternative to high-paced network mystery/crime shows.

“Rubicon” is a mildly captivating, always intriguing hour-long show with pacing problems. As a conspiracy thriller that regularly invokes ciphers, codes and superstitions under a thick veil of paranoia, it has plenty of suspense and heaping helpings of mystery. Its biggest problem is its refusal to directly engage that mystery, and it’s this strategy that makes it both unique to television and possibly far too frustrating a program.

James Badge Dale, a supporting actor in “The Departed,” stars as Will Travers, an expert code cracker in the CIA who begins to ooze paranoia after his boss and mentor is killed in a bizarre train wreck a day after Will discovers what he believes to be a cipher in the nation’s four leading crossword puzzles.

Will begrudgingly steps into the empty shoes and begins his own investigation into the death, which he believes was not an accident and that his boss may have in fact known he was going to die.

This setup is interesting, and show creator Jason Horwitch develops “Rubicon” as a throwback to paranoid 1970s thrillers, where everyone is in on a large conspiracy and a protagonist gets caught up in the swirl of it.

As such, the show loves to tinge things in as much atmosphere as possible, be it through awkward focusing of images, color tints or extended tracking shots. It builds, rather successfully, a feeling of paranoia and confusion.

Unfortunately, that’s about the best it does. Its central plot line never feels like it has enough to sustain the show’s program, so the writers regularly split episodes up around the work procedures of the rest of Will’s department as they try to accumulate information about terrorists and other assorted global problems.

Not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with this, and each detour is interesting and full of complex morality in its own right, but “Rubicon” enjoys keeping viewers in the dark more than exposing them to potential answers.

Television spectators are not like mushrooms; they won’t grow in the dark. They need at least a little light to keep interest.

Now, “Rubicon” may — over the course of its 13-episode first season — build to something darker, more complex and more revealing. As a show about intelligence, and the weight of intelligence, it’s always interesting even when it’s not engaging.

Horwitch and by extension, AMC, in an effort to make “Rubicon” unlike any kind of crime/intelligence/procedural show on television, has pulled off something that’s beautiful to look at, but empty on the inside.

While the show has plenty of space to blossom, it feels like it lacks the kind of headlong force to drive it through multiple seasons. It may be one of television’s only mystery shows, but it’s most certainly the most confounding.

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