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'American Odyssey' premiere react: A crowded journey

Despite some bright spots, ‘Odyssey’s’ biggest enemy is itself

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Virginia Sherwood/NBC

In an era where the comedy has become all but irrelevant to NBC, the network has tried to capture the success of its dark thrillers like The Blacklist and… well, The Blacklist. Conspiracy theories, mortal peril, global stakes—these aspects have all been present in the network’s recent attempts to strike dramatic gold twice with viewers (Allegiance, anyone?).

American Odyssey is the latest crack at that formula, but it’s one that feels overstuffed in its execution—filled to the brim with every conceivable character and plot twist to ensnare the audience’s attention. Unfortunately, few of them actually deliver much worth engaging with in the show’s premiere, “Gone Elvis.” A few glimmers of hope pop up throughout the hour, but forced to share the spotlight with the many elements that don’t work, they lose the opportunity to shine.

Odyssey (which only recently had an American tacked on it presumably thanks to whatever market research said about national pride. Look forward to American Undateable and America’s Got American Talent coming this fall.) takes the template of so many conspiracy thrillers before it. Multiple plotlines unwind gradually, revealed to be heavily intertwined as “Elvis” progresses.

At the heart of it all is Sgt. Odelle Ballard (Anna Friel), an American soldier (which you might not have known without the title change), whose group, Task Force 24, has taken down an Osama bin Laden-like Al Qaeda leader. Unfortunately for her, a competing private military force storms in to steal the glory, and she’s told by her commanding officer, Col. Glen (Trent Williams) to stand down. That doesn’t smell right to Ballard, so she downloads some possibly important information from a captured computer onto a secret thumbdrive that implicates a company only known to her as SOC before the private group squirrels it away.

With nothing left, Task Force 24 makes a trek into the deserts of Mali, where a perfectly aimed missile takes out her entire group, except for Odelle, who moved a few yards away to go to the bathroom.

Things only worsen as a group of bandits finds the blast zone and captures the still-alive Odelle, but not before she sends an email to Glen letting him know she’s alive.

That one incident leads to much more trouble than Odelle could ever realize. Back in America, a man named Peter (Peter Facinelli) learns from a chance run-in that the new corporation he’s working for may be looking at serious government trouble. He was brought in from the DA’s office to improve the company’s image, but Societal Mining (“SOC”) is up to more bad than even he can smooth over with the public.

What begins as simple curiosity leads him down a path to a UAV pilot that SOC’s boss tried to pay off, but the man refused the payment. This UAV pilot was part of the group ordered to shoot a drone missile at a group of American soldiers (sound familiar?), and has threatened to come clean about what he did. Threats to his family have kept him quiet.

And then, there’s also an Occupy Wall Street revival calling for more transparency about our wars overseas. At the center is prominent Occupy figure Harrison Walters (Jake Robinson), the son of a wealthy Wall Streeter. A conspiracy theorist member of the movement Bob (Nate Mooney) idolizes him and begins to unravel some of the secrets surrounding Odelle’s group. He finds her email to Glen, exposing the reported lie that everyone died in the explosion, and when a photo of Odelle is sent to Al Jazeera proving she is still alive, the possibility of saving her becomes central to the Occupy movement.

Did I mention there’s a lot going on Odyssey? The three main plotlines offer twist after turn after surprise, but few of them actually amount to anything. It can be difficult to keep up with, not because it’s intriguingly complex, but because it’s unnecessarily convoluted. The episode crams so many moments and characters into its plot in hopes of hooking the audience that none of it really sticks.

There are also some depressingly silly moments that don’t help matters. Odelle is captured by the scavengers because she leaves her phone’s volume on while sending a message. Every click of her keyboard leads them closer to her, when a simple flick of a switch would have muted it. Granted, being captured does end up saving her life when a sympathetic local boy takes her picture, but she could never have planned for that.

Odyssey deals in almost no sense of subtlety, making some of its developments as disappointingly dumb as that one. Take Harrison, who falls for a writer from Time enough to let her interview him, but then he discovers no one by her name ever worked for Time. It’s meant to be a late-episode surprise, but it’s difficult for the moment to land when the episode telegraphs her hidden agenda with lingering shots of her face, complete with serious or sly looks.

Peter’s plot suffers the most as it complicates the conspiracy. He thinks he has it all figured out when he convinces the UAV pilot to speak to the Department of Justice, only for a truck to come careening out of nowhere to kill him a block away. Except, it clearly didn’t come from anywhere, with obvious wide shots and awkward cuts that foretell his death and dissipate the tension.

But it’s not all problematic. Odelle’s plot is intriguing, and one that could honestly have used more time to let scenes linger. Friel is strong in the central role and gives the story its only real sympathetic and honest character. Other than keeping the phone’s volume on, everything she does feels logical, and Friel brings humanity to the role when most of the others feel wooden or one-dimensional.  

Really, if the show could focus its efforts around Friel, with the other plotlines offering occasional looks at other sides of her story, Odyssey would be a much stronger show. It tries to pack in so many ideas and surprising moments that are utterly unsurprising because of rushed pacing and poor execution.

American Odyssey wants to be everything other multinational, interweaving government thrillers have been, and in the end feels like a pale imitation of its better brethren. There’s a promising kernel in Odelle’s troubling tale, but the show needs to get out of its own way to let that plot work. Until then, Odyssey’s greatest enemy isn’t the perpetrators of its conspiracy. It’s the show itself.