Review: The Rook 1×1 (US: Starz; UK: Virgin)

Jason Bourne suffers Total Recall

In the US: Sundays, 8pm ET/PT, Starz
In the UK: Mondays, 10pm, Virgin TV Ultra HD. Starts tonight

I can’t tell if Starz is a bit limited or has a David Cameron-esque ‘one in, one out’ approach to TV series. If you recall, until quite recently, it had a sci-fi spy thriller set in a major European capital: the rather good Counterpart. It cancelled that before the end of the second season for no really good reason.

But could the explanation for this insanity have nothing to do with quality or ratings? Could it simply be because Starz had The Rook coming and it didn’t want two very similar shows on at the same time? One clearly a lot, lot better than the other?

Joely Richardson in The Rook
Joely Richardson in The Rook

Rookie mistake

Adapted from Daniel O’Malley’s novel of the same name, The Rook is set in frequently rainy London and sees Emma Greenwell (Shameless US) waking up next to the Millennium Bridge, surrounded by a host of internally exploded dead bodies. She doesn’t remember how she got there or even what her name is, let alone how everyone died, so legs it.

In her pocket, she discovers a letter – from herself. In it are two keys to a safety deposit: one red, one blue. If she uses the blue key, she can start a new life with a new identity; if she uses the red key, she can re-enter her old life. Be warned, her previous self warns her, your old life is dangerous.

Guess which one she picks.

The Rook

By hook or by rook

Soon, ‘Myfanwy’ is learning that she works for a secret branch of British Intelligence called the Checquy that deals with people with special powers. Everyone in Checquy is given a rank based on chess and she’s a ‘rook’ and works for ‘queen’ Joely Richardson.

All she’s got to do is find out what happened to her and not get found out –and not let guest American agent Olivia Munn (The Newsroom) learn that she’s the one who exploded her boyfriend by the bridge. Oops.

The Rook

The Rook Identity

If all of this sounds a bit familiar, it’s because it’s largely a retread of The Bourne Identity. Just with everyone having supernatural powers, instead of training in Filpino Kali. Greenwell bumbles along, trying to work out what she used to be and whether she’s even a good guy. She goes from Bournesque, neat-freak, exotic apartment to deposit box with gun to bluffing spy work with the alacrity of someone who hasn’t noticed their script has had ‘Matt Damon’ crossed out in numerous places.

She even gets to have a scene where she’s attacked – and suddenly bursts out in lethal moves without knowing where they came from, albeit Scanners-like telekinesis, rather than something more conventional

Unlike The Bourne Identity, however, there’s a distinct lack of verisimilitude. Sure, it’s sci-fi. Sure, maybe if you wanted to stay in a hotel without cameras, you would fork out for a scabby hole in the West End with US-style neon ‘vacancy’ light and that charged “£15/hour or £65/night”, rather than a moderately cheaper Travelodge or Premier Inn. But it seems unlikely.

Indeed, the show does suffer from the same “tourist London” attitude that Berlin Station did relative to Counterpart. Perhaps the worst offence is the heroine’s name, Myfanwy, which everyone goes around pronouncing to rhyme with Tiffany (Ach-y-fi!), but when it’s not the heroine going around wearing a 1960s-style Carnaby Street hat as a disguise, it’s something equally horrifying to us natives.

Still, we do get to see Olivia Munn disembarking from an East Midlands train in St Pancras. Where is the US embassy in this parallel universe? Beeston?

The Rook

Silly

That’s before we even start evaluating the show on its own terms. There is a certain intrigue present in the first episode that takes the show more into Total Recall territory. Is Myfanwy (or at least her previous self) really a goodie who’s had her mind wiped by the bad guys? Or is she really a baddie, trying to convince herself she’s a goodie in order to circumvent something or someone who can perhaps read minds, for example?

Why leave all those out-takes of videos rehearsing lines for her “important message” videos in her laptop’s trash? Or is that a double-bluff? Why even allow yourself to have your memory wiped if you know that it’s going to happen?

There’s also a decent cast, including Adrian Lester as Richardson’s co-boss. Plus Munn also manages to inject the stilted dialogue the Brits get to deliver with some actual emotion. Munn’s not normally the highlight of anything, but as with The Newsroom, here she’s one of the best things about the show.

Yet, the show’s much too preposterous, with its identically white-haired ‘gestalt’ agents and chess-piece titles. Its tradecraft is woeful – although again, is that a double bluff? – making you wonder if anyone’s actually read a John Le Carré novel or whether they’ve simply read his Wikipedia entries.

There’s a certain welcome, glossy glamour to the show, but it’s a real climb down after Counterpart for Starz, and I can’t believe it’ll fare well in the ratings unless a lot of superhero fans tune in. I’ll stay for one more episode at least, but this doesn’t look like a keeper so far.

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