By Darren Franich
August 21, 2018 at 03:14 PM EDT
  • TV Show

Tom Clancy’s bestselling books about CIA agent Jack Ryan wrought a whole industry. There was the oft-rebooted film series, variously starring Indiana Jones, Batman, Captain Kirk, and Jack Donaghy. There is the ongoing videogame franchise, offering meticulous fantasies of killfest imperialism. Taken all together, the Clancy pantheon comprises an insane universe brimming with nuclear terror and political hysteria. That describes a typical Tuesday in our own insane universe, so the time feels right for Amazon’s Jack Ryan, a compelling yet exasperating reboot debuting August 31.

The four episodes I’ve seen try hard to capture the unwieldy realities of modern warfare. A mysterious powermonger named Suleiman (Ali Suliman) rises in Syria, buoyed by support from Sunni and Shia alike. His money trail alerts Jack Ryan (John Krasinski), a number cruncher working in some backwater Langley cubicle. The expansive storytelling finds room for fascinating supporting characters. Suleiman’s wife (Dina Shihabi) has a complicated agenda. Ryan’s boss James Greer (ever-wonderful Wendell Pierce) finds complex solace in his own Islamic practice. One surreal subplot focuses on a nondescript drone operator in Las Vegas.

The sprawling focus feels purposeful, like creators Carlton Cuse and Graham Roland are working overtime to defeat the propagandistic instinct. This is the kind of show where the hero is the title, but it opens with a flashback focusing on a different character, spends lots of time with the nominal antagonist and his extended family. And Jack himself is presented, initially, as the opposite of a typical swaggery spy. “I’m an analyst!” he protests. “I don’t interrogate people, I write reports!”

True, for like two seconds. When we meet Jack, he’s a noble computer guy, statgeeking the banality of evil from behind a desk. For a moment, Krasinski’s presence could be stuntcasting. He’s not a field agent. He works in, well, the Office. But Jack Ryan marks a new direction for Amazon’s original programming, an aesthetic best described with a CHA-CHING sound effect and a GIF of Heath Ledger’s Joker burning his money mountain. So there’s a big travel budget, one huge action setpiece per episode, a helicopter when you least expect it.

Jack’s a brainy rookie, and he’s also a traumatized soldier: The Tinder dream of a sensitive brainiac with killer abs. His veteran status means he’s gun-ready. He also worked on Wall Street, so you know he’s a savvy investor: If Jack Ryan DC has a Slugline, Jack ranks high on their Eligible Bachelors lineup.

And the show’s initial sensitivity dwindles in the face of jingoistic excess. Mysterious brown people kill innocent white people on the streets of Paris. In Syria, a Muslim character describes an American drone attack as an act of God. Moments like that make Jack Bauer look subtle. And I worry that some intention of this first season is to provide Jack Ryan with an origin story — which makes all the other character work feel extraneous, like all the citizens of this very globalized world are just thematic signposts on Jack’s journey to self-realization.

Jack Ryan wants to acknowledge that mistakes have been made, grapple with confusing legacy of the CIA, the current troubled status of the American government. “I figure,” Jack explains, “It’s better to be on the inside, maybe be able to change something, than be on the outside and not be able to change anything.” Woke enough, humble bae. Yet you scan that statement for a deeper message: OUTSIDERS CHANGE NOTHING.

The real horrors of the September 11 terrorist attacks gave TV fiction like 24 and Homeland a haunted mania, like even the heroes were driven mad with fear and rage. In Jack Ryan‘s premiere, though, the frequent references to that horrible day sounds grasping, self-important, blankly alarmist. Jack demands that his bosses pay attention to his theories: “Don’t you think there are people on this floor who would’ve loved this opportunity twenty years ago the first time they heard the name Bin Laden?” Suleiman is “like Bin Laden,” Jack insists.

With one big difference. Suleiman is amassing millions of dollars for his plan. Whereas, as Jack tells us, “9/11 cost half a million dollars!” He’s trying to say that Suleiman’s attack could be much worse. And yet, what comes across in that line is a goofy arrogance, borderline snooty. Jack Ryan must be the the first TV show to suggest that 9/11 was too cheap. B-

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