In the US: Tuesdays, 10/9c, USA
In the UK: Friday, January 10, Amazon
Jason Bourne franchise spin-off Treadstone states in its opening titles: “Based on an organization from the Bourne series of novels by Robert Ludlum”. It’s tediously exact and speaks to an exciting level of copyright protection that even the nature of fictitious organisations is jealously guarded for their IP potential.
Nevertheless, despite this pedantry, it’s still only partially true.
The Bourne novels are a curious thing of the 80s. If you’ve only seen the Bourne movies, you’d probably be surprised by how different they are, thanks to the modernising skills of The Bourne Identity‘s director Doug Liman, who set the template with writer Tony Gilroy for the tone of the later movies.
Without wishing to spoil them too much for those who haven’t read them, they’re not the youthful, “American student with a Euro railcard”, agonised liberal take on the grey shades of US spying and colonial intervention in other countries’ affairs. Instead, they feature a considerably older Jason Bourne dealing with Carlos the Jackal on behalf of a US government anti-terrorist organisation called Treadstone. This Bourne is no super-soldier and the initial idea that he is a superhuman assassin turns out to be government propaganda.
Even by the second book, he’s only able to hold his own against younger men through virtue of his training, as his reflexes are slowing and he’s not as strong as he used to be. Plus he’s got a family and a lecturing career to worry about.
The TV adaptation of The Bourne Identity starring Richard Chamberlain as Jason Bourne was thus a far more authentic depiction of the book Bourne than the later movie version.
It’s considerably more accurate than Treadstone‘s titles suggest to say that its Treadstone is based on the movies’ version of the organisation – a top-secret US government programme designed to create stealthy young assassins from ordinary people through the use of certain dodgy brainwashing techniques and the like.
But just to crank things up from comparative to superlative, it would be most accurate to say that this is Tim Kring’s version of the movies’ version of Robert Ludlum’s Treadstone. Yes, the man behind Heroes has got his hands on Jason Bourne.
Jason Bourne’s a Hero
You may wonder why I mention the name of Tim Kring. After all, Heroes‘ heyday was 13 years ago and Kring has gone on to do plenty of other things since.
But my reasons are twofold. Firstly, Kring essentially killed Heroes by declaring that the only interesting superhero stories are origin stories and that had it been up to him, Heroes would have been an anthology show of origin stories, with different superheroes each season. He didn’t get his way and he quickly ran out of interesting stories to do.
Secondly, pretty much everything Kring has done since Heroes has been a variation on Heroes – and rubbish. That includes the utterly uneventful Heroes Reborn, as well as both Dig and Touch, all of which gave us globe-trotting, seemingly unconnected people, usually with super-powers, who end up being connected in mysterious ways.
It’s no surprise, therefore, that Treadstone is ultimately Heroes again. Rather than being all about a new Jason Bourne – a formula that didn’t work with Jeremy Renner in The Bourne Legacy – it’s multiple origin stories for the price of one, all ultimately linked.
The main origin story is for Treadstone itself – how it got started in East Berlin in the early 1970s. But as we intercut between then and now, we also get a whole bunch of other origin stories for what seem like Treadstone sleeper agents, as they slowly wake up from their normal lives and discover that they’re got superpowers.
What is surprising is that Kring finally seems to have found something that he can fit into his recurring format and make work. Yes, although it might seem like damning with faint praise, one episode in and Treadstone is already Kring’s best show since Heroes.
There are nods to the movies here and there, such as the show’s opening shakycam, which thankfully it dispenses with after about three scenes so that we don’t all get motion sickness. There’s also the retention of the movies’ trademark martial arts of Kali and Jeet Kune Do. You might think that a TV show couldn’t do those kinds of fights as well – you’d be wrong, since they’re probably the show’s highlight and they appear frequently.
All the spies fit into the Bourne mould, too. On the side of goodness we have Han Hyo-joo (Spring Waltz, Brilliant Legacy, Dong Yi, W), who’s a suitably pleasing and timid music teacher in a surprisingly well mocked up North Korea. Meanwhile, we have blue-collar and soon to be unemployed oil rig worker Brian J Smith (Stargate Universe, Sense8) over in Alaska. He more easily fits the Matt Damon role of the blank, well-meaning all-American boy, even if some odd reason his inner spy is brought out by none other than Kerry “Bish, bash, bosh” Godliman (Taskmaster, Derek, After Life) sporting an American accent.
On the side of people in black suits and jargon are Michelle Forbes (Berlin Station), Omar Metwally (The Affair, Mr Robot) and Michael Gaston (Prison Break). Forbes has done this so many times now, she barely needs to learn her lines, but creditably, she’s still putting in the effort. Ditto Gaston. Metwally, who’s less well known so has more to prove, rises to the challenge as well.
Subbing for Paddy Considine’s Bourne Ultimatum Guardian journalist in a reasonably accurate version of London is former freelance journalist Tracy Ifeachor (The Originals).
But for the most part, this is Heroes. We have shady organisations working behind the scenes with their own superbeings and then we have the various other superbeings going about their everyday lives, blatantly unaware that they are indeed superbeings but soon discovering that they can kick ass, speak all manner of different languages, shoot guns and do acrobatics.
Each origin story may be set in North Korea or Alaska (with India still to come in the form of South Indian cinema star Shruti Haasan), but it ultimately boils down to nice person with a normal life turns out to have been programmed to be a killer. Oops. Don’t they feel upset?
That’s not how Treadstone worked in the movies or the books; it wasn’t Jason Bourne’s backstory either. But it’s Heroes meets Bourne, which is what Kring’s aiming for. And it works.
However, one other things the show has in common with Heroes is Kring’s faulty grasp of genre. Spy stories = Cold War + Period Setting + Nuclear Missiles, right?
This is by far the show’s biggest failing. Ludlum’s books were always more Fleming than Le Carré, but Kring’s take on the genre is full-blown daft. The Bourne franchise may have got a little bit dafter during Jason Bourne, once Tony Gilroy came off writing duties, but at no point did we have (spoiler alert) nuclear missiles hidden under barns for decades and guarded by old women with sickles.
A wake-up signal in an illegal Gameboy left on your doorstep? Gosh, how unobtrusive. How unlikely to get stolen. How unlikely to get your sleeper agent in trouble.
And let’s not consider why Ifeachor has become a cab driver yet is now being asked by defecting North Korean generals she’s never met before to go on secret missions to French boarding schools to collect their daughters.
That said, the Treadstone origin story in the early 70s is the piece that doesn’t fit the Kring jigsaw. What is American ex-soldier Jeremy Irvine doing being experimented upon by Emilia Schüle? Why does the directorial style suddenly switch to Atomic Blonde just because it’s Berlin?
It’s probably the one still-credible piece of the show’s espionage story – and that’s largely because it hasn’t yet put all its cards on the table. But it could still be interesting.
Treadstone is at its best – which is very good – when it’s channelling either the Bourne franchise and Heroes (or both). It’s got a good cast, good characters, good production values, good fights, nice location filming and good direction.
However, it’s at its worst – which is quite bad – when it’s trying to be a spy show. It doesn’t understand the genre and doesn’t seem to want to use the Bourne template, so ends up somewhere between comic book and cliché.
On aggregate, it’s definitely good enough that I’m going to keep watching it. But I’m braced for a disappointing season 1 finale at the very least. It’s the Tim Kring way.