AMC’s new conspiracy series

By Ken Tucker
July 29, 2010 at 04:00 AM EDT

From The Twilight Zone to The Prisoner to The X-Files to Fringe, the paranoid style in television history has always been a deviously efficient way to slither into a viewer’s brain. Now comes Rubicon, which has great promise to join the ranks of the best Why are they after us? TV.

James Badge Dale, so soulful on HBO’s The Pacific, stars as Will Travers, a federal intelligence analyst—a brilliant drone who vibrates doomstruck melancholy. His wife and child died in the 9/11 attacks, but Rubicon doesn’t linger on or exploit this plot point, instead simply acknowledging it as the date that set in motion the work Will does. He and his officemates in the American Policy Institute— API—are authorized to cut across various government agencies to sift through data, looking for patterns, pop-up warning signs, or slowly emerging clues to potential threats around the world.

Rubicon was created by Jason Horwitch (Medical Investigation), but so far its most articulate public spokesperson has been exec producer Henry Bromell, the superb fiction writer and producer-writer for shows like Homicide: Life on the Street and Brotherhood. Bromell has compared Rubicon to ’70s feature films such as All the President’s Men and The Parallax View, movies about the process of uncovering terrible secrets hiding in plain sight if one only digs deeply enough and cracks the bureaucratic code.

The challenge for a show like this is the same one director Alan J. Pakula faced with President’s and Parallax: how to make the work of deskbound brooders enthralling. Rubicon does it by creating an eerily quiet world in which small moments can generate great suspense. The discovery of a spy’s clues planted in crossword puzzles, or Will’s insistence that a guy is following him while we are shown that two different men are tailing him—these carry more dramatic weight than a score of car chases or martial-arts fight scenes.

Arliss Howard (Medium) plays Will’s sly, poker-faced boss; in turn, his boss is played by the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Michael Cristofer (The Shadow Box), who makes an immediate impression for the way he purrs with fusty WASP malice. Add a squad of dexterous New York theater vets as Will’s API teammates, and you’ve got a bench of talent.

Rubicon doesn’t have the glossy panache of Mad Men or the in-your-face confrontations of Breaking Bad, but I think that’s a good thing. It establishes Rubicon as its own distinct creation from AMC. The series suggests that there are forces attacking our government, our way of life, and that the brainpower it takes to prove a conspiracy is every bit as exciting as the musclepower it takes to demolish the enemy. A?