Monday, August 02, 2010

TV Review: 'Rubicon' Takes It Old School

Sundays at 9PM ET on AMC

            The symbol that drives the first two hours of the new show Rubicon on AMC is a four-leaf clover. A symbol that is meant to represent luck, the characters of Rubicon, most notably Will Travers (James Badge Dale), see it as it’s opposite: the beginning of a pattern, a highly constructed one at that. Rubicon is not about luck or coincidence; it’s about looking past those and finding the real conspiracies. The new television series is meticulously plotted, and the clues our not hidden in the back code of computers, but in crossword puzzles and typewriters.
            Rubicon, so to say, is old school. Since September 11th, a number of shows have made their way into pop culture by using big vast conspiracies at their hearts: Lost, 24, Flashforward, and more. But these are just hooks to keep viewer glued to episodes without anything of meaning. Fan boys pour over clues without ever considering the thematic meaning. Rubicon is detailed, but not for its plot—it’s about atmosphere in this show. It takes conspiracies as its main game and the people who pour over them. The show, created by Jason Horwotch (Medical Investigation) but being run by Henry Bromell (Homicide: Life on the Streets), sucks you in with its deadening look and quiet tone. There’s a train crash in the first hour, but besides that, it’s really a lot of quick-paced dialogue that might take two or three listens for the viewer to catch up with the characters. The intensity from Rubicon derives not from shocking twists that don’t make sense; it’s from the process of watching heroes figure it out on their own.
            The show takes place in a small warehouse in lower Manhattan that houses the American Progress Institute, a think tank that processes all the other information that the CIA, NSA, and FBI take in. The crew look for the patterns. In one early scene, our hero, Will, takes a look at four seemingly unrelated countries with his twitchy co-worker Miles (Dallas Roberts). “They were all part of the Roman Empire. They all spend less that 5% of their GDP on their military,” Will says without taking more than a second to think it out. While the rest of his crew might turn out to be unfortunate cookie-cutter characters (The new girl, the snarky big shot, the caring secretary), none of them seem to be jumping for joy, they all enter this world dreary and depressive. Will, who lost his wife and child on 9/11, is the most reserved of the bunch, which allows him to concentrate and be the best at his position.
            The real action of Rubicon begins when Will brings a series of crossword puzzles to his boss and closest friend, David (Peter Gerety). The same four clues appear in seven different newspapers, and Will is convinced it means something. David dismisses it, but brings it to his boss (a particularly creepy Christopher Evan Welch), and then ends up in a train crash the next day. Will, after some sulking (which will probably be a recurring theme), takes his position, and decides to investigate those crosswords closer. A subplot also brewing includes Miranda Richardson, who begins investigating the mystery behind her husband’s suicide, who is in someway connected to Will’s creepy bosses.
            Some might call Rubicon an emotionless and dreary series, but the first two hours are engrossing because it doesn’t try and suck you in with gimmicks. It’s quiet and never flashy. Bromell has cited the Sydney Pollack and Alan Pakula thrillers of the 1970s as inspirations, and in many ways, this feels like All The President’s Men. No one has a computer in their offices—they simply stare at paper after paper, trying to connect dots however they can. I’m not sure whether Rubicon can sustain its momentum, since it has little to begin with, but I’m fascinated by its visual structure and languid pacing. It also seems to take a step back and look at our obsession witgh obsession itself. Looking at these people, seeing how meticulous and little their works is, and how it can add up to nothing, is a frightening idea. Is this how dead we are inside? Will finding that last clue really bring us the satisfaction we’ve been craving all our lives? Rubicon makes us want to believe in the conspiracy, but it seems like its also willing to question it at the same time.
AMC might have another winner, along with Breaking Bad and Mad Men, to add to its dedication to quality TV (and Paul Darabont’s zombie apocalypse show The Waking Dead looks quite good as well). Rubicon not in a rush to get anywhere fast. While other series are in a rush to pour you with too much information, it seems like it will let us sizzle in the details for as long as it wants, and let us have contemplate not only the puzzles, but why we enjoy breaking them so much. 

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