Rubicon has aired a scant six episodes, but its prognosis is already as grim as the inside of one of those morose meeting rooms in which James Badge Dale’s Will sifts through intelligence data. This new AMC Sunday night show hasn’t been met with the critical hosannas that greeted the channel’s Mad Men, and I know a number of EW staffers who watched the first three episodes and gave up, saying it was “too slow” and “boring.” One person’s “boring” is another’s blissful serenity, of course, and as for me, I kinda love Rubicon‘s contemplative approach to discovering who’s trying to blow up the United States.
You’ve heard of Gleeks? I’m thinking of starting a Rubicon fan club, so that we could call ourselves Bleaks.
The series is circling warily around a number of subplots that will eventually entwine… and if Rubicon has its stubborn way, it’ll probably feel like slow-moving kudzu wrapping itself around your windpipe. Will has discovered his home and American Policy Institute office have been bugged… by whom? The first-episode murder of David Hadas (Peter Gerrity), Will’s father-in-law and the former head of Will’s team of brilliant-malcontent API data analyzers, is beginning to look like part of a Vast Conspiracy, right- or left-wing still unspecified. And Miranda Richardson’s Katherine is searching for clues to her husband’s first-episode suicide. To give you some idea how confidently lackadaisical Rubicon is about narrative tension, she and Will didn’t even meet until episode five, and then only glancingly, at a party.
So why do I find Rubicon so compelling? Well, for starters, it’s one of the best portraits of contemporary office life on television — the flip side, the no-jokes side, of The Office. Which is to say, Rubicon gathers together people who have nothing in common except the talent to sift through data and “connect the dots,” and allows them to slowly unfold their quirks, their resentments, their irritations with each other, and to demonstrate the way being really smart can sometimes make you a really unhappy, neurotic, angry person. I’d say that description fits everyone from Will (who’s allowed to brood attractively because he lost his wife and daughter in the 9/11 attacks, and who is, after all, our hero) to Lauren Hodges’ Tanya (who shows up in the gloomily-lit offices wearing sunglasses because she drinks too much) to Michael Cristofer’s Truxton Spangler, the API leader who’s so old-boy-WASP preppy, he practically strangles his syllables when forced to make a personal comment. There’s also Dallas Roberts’ Miles, a scruffy young brainiac who’s a closet comic-book fan filled with a sarcasm that makes him funny to us and strangle-worthy to his teammates, and Christopher Evan Welch’s Grant, a seething, unhappily-married man whose truculence is matched only by his condescension. I love Grant.
In short: Extract the espionage element, and who among us has not worked with people like this?
There’s a lot of dry — very dry — wit floating through Rubicon. Most of it emanates from Will’s immediate superior, Kale Ingram, played by Arliss Howard with a taut, sly haughtiness that’s so good, it makes you forget the seasons he’s spent floating through, challenge-free, on Medium.
Last week’s episode, written by Zach Whedon, was a terrific installment that mingled paranoia, Al-Qaeda, Urdu, and the series’ recurring four-leaf-clover imagery.
UPDATE: In this week’s Rubicon, API was put on lock-down when the FBI suspected there may be a mole in the office, spiriting out top-secret documents. Hearing Spangler’s imperious contempt for the FBI was priceless, as was his way of addressing the staff: “I know you all barely know each other, and we like to keep it that way, but… “
(And poor Grant: “I need to call my wife… My daughter’s school play is this afternoon. She’s playing an asparagus… )
The notion that Miles left the file in a cab was a fine touch, although it brought to the surface one of those implausibilities that I know have turned some people off about this show, namely: What’s with all the paper at API? Don’t these people use computer files, laptops, or even flash-drives? Perhaps one of the quaint (and for all we know, realistic) details of the show is that, in the spy game, computer hacking is more dangerous that simply putting secrets down on paper — something tangible that is in one’s possession or not.
At any rate, Will’s repeated question to Kale — “Who do we work for?” — has now become more intense. Spangler was investigating the dead Hadas; Will’s got a bug in his owl (I like that phrase), and the show seems to think we’ll forget that Maggie is keeping a close eye on Will for her masters.
Did you watch Rubicon this week? What did you think?