In the US: Sunday 17th October, AMC
In the UK: Acquired by BBC4. Will air 2010/early 2011
I’ve more or less stopped doing these full-season reviews of TV shows, on the general grounds they take time and effort, and I’m quite lazy – plus there’s always What Have You Been Watching? on Fridays to do brief reviews.
But the first season of Rubicon, I think, is quite an instructive piece of TV, and what with it coming to BBC4 soon, I thought I’d go over some of the things that make it interesting and worth watching, and what it teaches us about US television production.
I’ll avoid spoilering anyone who has yet to see it because they’re waiting for it on BBC4.
When Rubicon started, it was billed as a conspiracy theory series. That, indeed, was the intention of the show’s creator, Jason Horwitch. However, Horwitch left the series soon after the pilot – depending on whom you believe, because he couldn’t make the show work or because of personal differences. Henry Bromell, a novelist and former producer of Homicide: Life on the Street and writer for Brotherhood, took over. His intention was to make Rubicon a more realistic spy show in the same vein as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which is what he did.
Rubicon, over its 13-episode run, became the most realistic depiction of intelligence gathering and analysis that US TV has ever done (note: that doesn’t mean it was completely realistic, since the agency it depicts, API, doesn’t actually exist, for example) – the main story thread of the show being a team of analysts simply trying to work out what the hell is going on with a group of people the CIA are following, based on the data they’ve been given. There’s almost no violence, no car chases, no explosions, no anything, except investigation of the evidence.
But with a conspiracy theory set-up, the show has continued to run essentially as two TV shows in parallel: one, the conspiracy theory that was in the first episode and designed by Horwitch; the other, the analysis of the evidence and designed by Bromell.
Two shows in one
Now the conspiracy theory itself was quite weak and started off very nonsensically, with its (spoiler) “go code” that appeared in crossword puzzles around the world. No one needs to go to that effort, when a small ad in the New York Times or Craigslist will serve just as well.
Fortunately, Bromell was able to move most of that to the background, so while our investigating heroes, analyst Will Travers and widow Katherine Rhumor, spend much of their on-screen time going around investigating clues, very little actually happens with the conspiracy. When it’s dealt with, it’s not in a Burn Notice way, but instead is more in keeping with slow-moving, atmospheric films of the 70s like The Parallax View, Three Days of the Condor and The Conversation, and there are many visual homages to these movies. Much of it concerns fears of being watched, of the possibility of being killed at any moment if the bad guys know you know too much, rather than having a gun put in your face.
Over the course of the first 10 episodes, in fact, not a lot happens. We’re given a slow drip-drip of information, almost anything related to the conspiracy silly – with extraordinarily pointless and extravagant codes being used, for example – anything related to the analysis work well handled, even if it’s mostly by characters who’d seem at home in The Office.
The result is that even by episode nine, we’re not exactly sure what the conspiracy is: we know it’s there, we just don’t know what the aim of it is. Each episode has, however, been filling in clues on the crossword. When episodes 10 and 11 arrive, we finally get to see what’s going on and how elegant the construction of it has been.
Then episode 12 hits and we’re wowed by the eventual revelation that all the analysis work that looked pointless and unrelated to anything actually means a whole lot. It’s a fantastic episode and worth the admission fee alone.
Unfortunately, episode 13 proves to be an anti-climax as the conspiracy takes over again. Instead of a real denouement with finality, we get a very realistic conclusion to the whole thing (spoiler: Will knows everything about the conspiracy but Spengler, his boss and a member of the conspiracy, merely points out that no one will believe him and leaves him alone), which ain’t a bad thing. But we also get a “conspiracy theory room” – you know, one of those darkly-lit places where conspiracy theories are discussed. The conspiracy theory clover leaf makes its return. Rhumor is revealed to be not especially important, her vital evidence going missing (or does it?), and another character is revealed to have a double-life that makes zero sense.
It’s like the remains of the original show came back to haunt the much better new show at the last minute.
Whither Rubicon? Well, it’s not been commissioned for a second season yet. However, according to Bromell, the show has good ratings for AMC so chances are it could be back.
But what would happen in it? Well, the name of the show comes from the idea that Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon was the pivotal point at which the Roman Republic became a dictatorship. Combined with that, the implications from episodes 12 and 13 are clear. So does that mean more conspiracy theory or less?
I suspect more, but I’m hoping less, with a greater focus on characters. Over the season, there have been two standouts characters, both added (or heavily altered) by Bromell: Kale Ingram, Will’s boss; and Truxton Spangler, Kale’s boss.
Kale is like no other character on TV: a gay man, a former marine, clever, sophisticated, a consummate professional. He’s brilliant and played brilliantly by Arliss Howard.
But Spangler, while not a fantastic character, despite his idiosyncrasies, is more of an acting tour de force by writer/actor Michael Cristofer. He’s mesmerising to watch and listen to.
I’d like to see more pacing in a second season of Rubicon – it is just too slow for the vast majority of people – and I suspect that is one thing that will change. Certainly, there are enough loose character threads hanging about and the results of episode 12 to be dealt with which should ensure greater pace next season.
Will I be watching? Certainly.
So what are the lessons of Rubicon? Well, firstly, it’s that you have to make sure your foundations are good, or else no matter what work you do afterwards, you’re always going to have problems.
Secondly, it shows us that sometimes a show’s creator isn’t always the best person to handle an idea.
Thirdly, and perhaps more importantly, it shows the flexibility of the US production system. Imagine if Rubicon had been made in the UK. That show’s creator would almost certainly have been tasked with creating just six episodes for the show, if that, so the steady drip-drip that made Rubicon engrossing and even more realistic just wouldn’t have happened. He or she would have had to have written the scripts, maybe with one or two other people, before the show went into production. Then the series would have been pretty much as is from those scripts.
Sure, not all British shows are made like that, but that’s the most common method of drama production here.
But the US system allowed for
- A change of show-runner to one who wasn’t the show’s creator
- The show to change both during and after the pilot, mid-flow, because the scripts weren’t set in stone before production began
- Writers to adapt to the change in direction, since the show had enough writers on staff that the workload could be spread out
Which meant that rather than a six-month delay or even longer, the show was still able to go ahead on time and to be executed well – even better than originally planned.
So Ben Stephenson of the BBC, the next time you point to Sherlock and say a three-episode series could never be done in the US (aside from the obvious fact that telefilms and mini-series are done all the time – cf The Six Million Dollar Man, The Man From Atlantis, Angels in America, Generation Kill, Hercules, the ‘Librarian’ series on TNT, Knight Rider, Virtuality et al), remember that in the US, someone else could have taken over from Steven Moffat, commissioned other writers to write scripts, leaving our Stevie to write as many as he liked, and there could have been a whole run of Sherlock.