Review: Rubicon 1×1-1×6

127 days of the Condor

In the US: Sundays, 9pm/8c, AMC
In the UK: Acquired by BBC4

It used to be that you could rely on AMC for one thing: movies. That’s what AMC used to stand for – American Movie Classics. But after it changed its name to AMC in 2003, before you knew it, it could be relied on for another thing: re-runs of The Sopranos.

Mad Men changed all that. Suddenly, AMC was in the business of making TV drama. Excellent TV drama. Slow, excellent TV drama that takes a long time to develop and in which not much happens for a long time.

Then came Breaking Bad, a slow, excellent TV drama that took a long time to develop and in which not much happened for a long time, and The Prisoner, a slow bad TV drama that took a long time to develop and in which not much happened for a long time.

Rubicon, AMC’s latest TV drama, is a conspiracy theory show set in the world of American spies that echoes movies like Three Days of the Condor, Parallax View and The Conversation. It stars James Badge Dale (24, The Pacific) as an analyst who begins to see crossword clues take on greater significance – and Miranda Richardson, whose husband commits suicide after he receives a four-leafed clover.

Anyone want to guess what it’s like? I’ll give you a clue – you’ll have to wait until episode five before you’re even going to get a hint at what’s going on… and it gets good.

Here’s a trailer.

AMC production on Rubicon, its newest original drama series, began on Monday, March 29 in New York City. The show is a conspiracy thriller starring James Badge Dale (who earlier this year headlined HBO’s The Pacific) as an analyst at a New York City-based federal intelligence agency who is thrown into a story where nothing is as it appears to be. Henry Bromell (Homicide, Chicago Hope, Brotherhood) has signed on as showrunner. The one-hour, 13-episode weekly series is produced by Warner Horizon Television and premieres this summer.

“Rubicon is an incredible story about trust and power born out of the desire to find a way to capture the intensity and mystery of the best conspiracy thrillers in a series. It is a show that appeals to everyone who has some skepticism about the relationship between big business and our government, which we think is pretty much everybody,” said Joel Stillerman, SVP of original programming, production and digital content for AMC. “Our stellar cast and creative team allow us to continue to present premium television on basic cable.”

The series cast includes James Badge Dale (The Pacific, The Departed), Oscar®-nominated actress Miranda Richardson (Sleepy Hollow), Dallas Roberts (Walk the Line, Flicka, The L Word), Jessica Collins (The Nine, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation), Christopher Evan Welch (Vicky Cristina Barcelona), Lauren Hodges (Law & Order), and Arliss Howard (Full Metal Jacket, Natural Born Killers, The Sandlot).

AMC’s Stillerman along with Susie Fitzgerald, senior vice president of scripted development and current programming and Jeremy Elice, vice president of original programming, will oversee the development and production of the new drama.

Rubicon’s pilot was produced in New York City and was directed by acclaimed film and television helmer Allen Coulter (The Sopranos, Hollywoodland, Damages, Nurse Jackie) and Kerry Orent (Michael Clayton, Rescue Me) is the producer.

Is it any good?
Even though we’re up to episode six now, it’s actually really hard to tell if it’s any good. Which is odd. It’s obviously very beautifully made. It’s intelligent and thoughtful. There’s some great acting. It’s lovely to look at, even if it does make New York look like it hasn’t changed since the 1970s.

It’s just very hard to know what it’s actually about.

Ostensibly (I know this because I’ve read the press releases and marketing blurb), it’s all about a conspiracy involving the highest levels of government – “some conspiracies aren’t just theories” the poster says. What that conspiracy actually is, I couldn’t tell you. It does involve crossword puzzles, and people killing themselves because of it. It involves shady people shadowing our heroes in the shadows and cryptic clues being left all over the place. It involves just about every spy cliché going, although few of the action ones.

But I’m just not sure where it’s all going. I don’t know why Miranda Richardson’s husband killed himself, a plot thread that so far has only touched once on the main plot thread (an encounter at a party that lasts all of 30 seconds), but which I’m sure will come together in four or five episodes’ time. I don’t know why the crossword puzzles are being used as “go codes” (there must surely be easier methods of doing it). I don’t know why the first victim of this conspiracy was so incredibly cryptic in providing essentially providing very little information. I don’t know why the bad guys are following our hero yet not killing him. I don’t even know why they’re the bad guys or what they’re doing.

The Spy Office
While it’s working out where it’s going, Rubicon treats us to various side stories. Indeed, more often than not, rather than being a spy show, it comes across as an episode of the UK version of The Office. The show’s focus is the fictitious ‘API’, a kind of universal collating house for the US intelligence agencies, able to draw any intel it wants from any other agency and combine it all to spot the bigger pattern.

Everyone involved in API appears to be a colossal nerd with serious social skills deficiencies.

Our hero, Will (Dale), is almost an autistic savant, a bumbler who knows the most obscure bits of trivia, but can barely look someone in the eye. His wife died in 9/11, but he hasn’t recovered since. He doesn’t even date, which is a shame, because his introverted colleague (Jessica Collins) is basically throwing herself at him. Except she has her own problems with a kid and an ex-husband. His other colleagues are equally messed up, with family problems and drink problems to deal with. And they’re all snippy, snarky dorks who find it hard to do as they’re told.

Even his boss is weird: Will spends an entire episode following him around Washington while he tries to get budgets approved. But most of their dialogue involves discussion of the perfect kind of briefcase for a spy (one that you can open with one hand, that doesn’t make a noise when opened, that doesn’t have a combination lock, and that isn’t too noticeable, in case you’re interested).

I’m not sure I actually like any of the characters as a result. They’re all very passive. The only character I do like is Will’s middle manager and that’s mainly because he appears to be the only one to have any clue about anything.

The bad guys
Well, where are they? Who knows, but so far, they’ve not been very bad. Without spoiling it for anyone, they’ve had a lot of opportunities to kill Will, but haven’t. Anyone could be part of this conspiracy – although what they’re conspiring against I don’t know (are they really the fourth branch of government? And how the hell did Will come up with that theory?) – and some serious spies appear to have been involved, but they’re actually quite inept in practice.

If I were to compare it to anything, I’d say this is really the US spy version of Ken Branagh’s Wallander. It’s sort of about spies, but doesn’t really have much of a clue about them. Instead, the show’s really about homaging all those wonderful 70s spy movies – and existential angst, misery, the need to find meaning in things that are probably random and the general loneliness of existence: do we really know much about anyone?

I like Rubicon though. I’m a little harsh in saying it knows nothing about spies, since it does at least present spies mostly as unprepossessing individuals, mostly working with bad information in back offices, which is a lot closer to reality than Burn Notice, say. It just needs to give us a reason to watch it, some real plot to really push things forward.

I would say try Rubicon, if you haven’t already, but you’re going to need to invest in at least the five episodes before you’ll know if it’s for you, and that’s a lot of time. I don’t even know myself if it’s for me. I just know that it’s so clearly made by people who are invested in making a decent TV show that I’ve enough faith it will all pan out by the end. I hope.


  • Rob Buckley

    I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.