In the UK: Available on Amazon
Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan is a character who is much loved and much hated, all while simultaneously inspiring much indifference. Created by Clancy back in the 80s during the post-Carter, Reaganite dry run at “Make America Great Again”, Ryan is an honourable spy with all-American values who defeats enemies from around the world while demonstrating why America is num-ber one, num-ber one, num-ber one. Simultaneously able to rebuke Prince Charles for not being emotional enough after saving him from terrorists (Patriot Games) while praising the SAS for being “almost as good as our marines”, he’s been the star of 16 books and moved his way up from lowly analyst to President of the United States. It’s that aspirational, conservative moral superiority that is probably the secret to his success in the books, although Clancy’s provision of lovely detailed technical information about the baffles on Hughes 500 helicopters has also helped to get the military hardware fans excited where it counts.
In movies, though, Ryan’s not fared quite as well. Arguably America’s answer to James Bond, that’s as much true because of the number of actors who have portrayed him as the cultural role he plays – Alec Baldwin (The Hunt for Red October), Harrison Ford (Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger), Ben Affleck (The Sum of All Fears) and Christopher Pine (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) have all played him in one movie franchise attempt after another that has failed to come close to the impact or longevity of Bond.
Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan’s TV series
Now Amazon are having a go at turning him into the star of a TV franchise with the imaginatively titled Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan. It sees the ‘Ryanverse’ being reset to the beginning once again, with John Krasinski (slightly beefier now than he was in The Office (US)) taking on the title character, who has now switched majors from history to become a doctor of economics turned CIA analyst. Consistent with the rest of the Ryanverse, he’s still a former marine with an injured back turned lowly, back-office guy, this time monitoring bank transactions in the Middle East. When he spots some atypical SWIFT transfers, he brings it to the attention of his new boss – The Wire‘s Wendell Pierce taking on the role of old favourite James Greer, who’s now a morally compromised field spy rather than a distinguished admiral.
Before he knows it, he’s being whisked off by helicopter from a party where he’s meeting his future wife Cathy Mueller (Limitless‘s Abbie Cornish) so he can help to track down a new bin Laden (The Looming Tower‘s Ali Suliman) using his all-American gumption – and ability to patronise other cultures.
Pick a target
It’s a little unclear who exactly Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan is aimed at. While the books are sometimes little more than jingoistic propaganda, the TV series tries to do what the movies did and smooth out the gaucheness of its source material by making it smarter, more nuanced, more respectful of its opposition and less likely to insult it.
Trouble is, while former marine Graham Roland is one of the showrunners and he does his best to give the show a more realistic, on-the-ground feel, the other showrunner is Carlton Cuse. Best known still for Lost, Cuse is also the producer behind The Burning Zone, Black Sash, Colony, Bates Motel, The Adventures of Brisco County Jr and a lot of other smarter-than-average-but-still-not-too-smart bits of pulp TV fiction and that’s the feel that Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan has.
The show ends up falling between two stools. On the one hand (Roland’s), it doesn’t want to be stereotyping muslims, to the extent it even makes Greer a Muslim convert; it also wants to tell an intelligent spy story, with twists and turns, good research, multi-lingual dialogue, proper science, well developed characters and a bad guy with decent motivations, intelligence and a clever game plan. Surprisingly large chunks of the entire season are devoted to making the new Osama sympathetic, by showing how his life has systematically fallen apart thanks to Western imperialism and racism.
Will this play well with the MAGA crowd? Probably not.
But on the other hand (Cuse’s?), it still gives us a terrorist able to smuggle not just one but two different superweapons of mass destruction into the US. It also wants to be able to send Ryan over to France for three episodes to explain what’s wrong with the French approach to integration of muslims, and makes half the French police involved practically Front National supporters – while also casting obvious French-Canadians in lead roles and doing a Daily Mail by mixing up Saint-Denis and Seine-Saint-Denis.
Will this play well with the Euro-loving coastal ‘elites’ who know that Paris isn’t busily collapsing into a war zone as we speak, or knows that the average terrorist is more likely to be like the Four Lions bunch, rather than a genius? Again, probably not.
It doesn’t help that we’ve had Homeland dealing with similar issues for many seasons, and Condor had a very similar plotline just a month ago, both of which are better, cleverer shows than Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan anyway.
The hardware-porn aspect of the Ryan genre has also been surgically removed. Not a gun make mentioned, not an infra-red system’s attenuation capabilities discussed, not a special forces pincer movement described. While we do have John Hoogenakker playing someone who’s liable to turn out to be the Ryanverse’s future ‘Clark’ and there are plenty of semi-decent firefights and explosions, the general military efficiency and skill that Clancy’s US military normally has is entirely absent. You’d be better off watching SEAL Team if you want to mainline the good stuff.
Unexceptional – but not awful
That absence of anything exceptional or really distinctive – beyond the superb Suliman – doesn’t actually mean that Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan is a bad show, however, let alone a boring or an unwatchable show. Pretty much every episode is tense and thrilling, although not the tensest or most thrilling thing you’ll have ever seen. I predicted on Friday that I doubted I’d have watched the whole season before next Monday. Yet, I got through all eight episodes in a weekend with reasonable alacrity. Indeed, it sped by so quickly, that by episode six, I was beginning to wonder how it would get concluded in just two episodes and I was hoping for more – I assumed all of this was just the first half of a much longer story.
Instead, Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan is perfectly good, chewing gum fodder. Krasinski makes for an enjoyable enough Ryan, albeit one who through no fault of his own hasn’t much personality. He’s no Alec Baldwin, but he’s no worse than Pine or Affleck. Cornish doesn’t get a lot to do – less than Keira Knightley, more than Gates McFadden – and virtually all her scenes without Krasinski fail Bechdel, but she’s a worthy sparring partner when they’re together, and a reasonably decent chunk of the story is devoted to fleshing out the couple’s growing relationship – can an epidemiologist and a spy ever be happy together?
Pierce, though, is more impressive and his character does at least have some quirks. But there’s nothing he gets to do that you won’t have seen from a dozen spy shows that deal with the moral quandaries of the profession and its many shades of grey.
Assuming you’ve seen a dozen spy shows, of course, and Cuse and co probably don’t think you have. I more or less agree. Odds on, the worldwide audience won’t have watched much Homeland and probably not Condor at all. The average viewer could well thrill to the apparent trips around the world to Syria, Paris, the Alps, Afghanistan and numerous other places. The fight scenes are generally decent, even if Krasinski always seems to end up on the floor scrabbling for his gun, rather than using Marine Martial Arts. If you engage your brain a reasonable amount but not too much, there’s a lot to enjoy.
Whatever TV shows you have watched, Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan won’t be the best you’ve ever seen. But you probably won’t actually regret watching it, providing you go in expecting to be entertained rather than surprised. It has a memorably complicated villain, a certain degree of smarts and kinetic energy, and a reasonable amount of heart. If you have Amazon already and you’re up for a bit of action, it’s probably one of the best things on it, although that probably says more about the state of other Amazon Originals than Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan; if you don’t, however, it’s not worthy signing up for.
Give it a try – if you can.