If there really were a shadow conspiracy running the world, if there really were a secret cabal of men who were pulling the strings around the globe to produce a desired effect, being a part of that group without really knowing you were might end up being fairly boring. There would probably be lots of paperwork. You'd always get little glimpses of the evil being done in your name. You'd likely have no job security, not to mention life security. But you'd always feel like a part of something, like it or not. You'd always have a reason to keep waking up in the morning until you didn't.
AMC's new series and attempt to go three-for-three insofar as quality drama series go (if we just pretend that no one remembers Remember WENN), Rubicon, is pitched directly at that question. It's about the members of a shadowy think tank who really have no idea how deep the rabbit hole goes and don't terribly want to know. I'm not immediately convinced the pilot works as an episode of television, but as a sampler, as an excuse to get me to watch another hour, I'm hooked. It's not going to work for everyone - particularly for the people who didn't get the memo that this wasn't actually a nearly two-hour-long episode of Breaking Bad and are now upset about Rubicon being tacked on there - but it is going to work for some people very well. I suspect I'll be one of those people.
The best TV series take what could be called cinematic worlds and slowly expand them, pushing to the edges of those worlds and seeing what's out there. Deadwood does this with Westerns. The Sopranos did it with gangster movies. Mad Men is a take on the office politics movies of the '50s and '60s, while Breaking Bad hangs out in the American arthouse scene. Rubicon is essentially a take on '70s conspiracy thrillers, it looks like, though I'm willing to admit the first episode doesn't make this abundantly clear (or, really, make anything abundantly clear).
The biggest issue one has to face when coming up with a pilot is whether or not you're going to tell a self-contained story that hints at a larger world beyond the story's borders or whether you're going to just offer up an introductory look at the world. To return to our great television metaphors, The Sopranos is a very self-contained episode of TV in its pilot, where nearly every minor conflict that's set up is paid off, and we're expected to trust that the character conflicts will be what carry us through in the weeks to come. By contrast, The Wire is a sample of the world we're going to get to know. Many of the show's most major characters don't even appear, and the main action of the pilot - McNulty convincing a judge to let him set up a task force - is handled in a single scene. Most pilots take the former model, as a matter of course. It's simply easier to convince an audience to come back when you've shown you can tell one enjoyable story. The latter model relies on trust to a huge degree.
One of the biggest problems with all of the Lost and 24 copycats that popped up around the middle of last decade is that all of them thought their overarching stories were so interesting that the audience would stick around based on hints of bigger things to come, forgetting that the pilots for Lost and 24 suggested much, much larger worlds, sure, but also set up fairly concrete storylines and goals for their characters to accomplish. Jack has to figure out just what's going on with his family, even as he's called in on an assassination attempt. The Lost gang has to figure out a way to get a message out to the world for rescue, never mind the Smoke Monster in the trees. By and large, the copycats that worked were the ones that figured out a way around this problem of splitting a larger story into more manageable chunks. The ones that failed were the ones that insisted it would all make so much sense once we got to the end, and wouldn't we just pull up a chair for a little while and settle in. These shows relied too heavily on the faith of an audience that had been burned too many times.
By the standards of creating a compelling episode of television, a singular unit that stands apart, Rubicon's pilot is kind of a failure. It gives us little to no idea of what kind of stories we'll be seeing from week to week, and it hinges almost everything on a character relationship we've only gotten a few minutes to know (though that relationship is well-developed in those few minutes). There are intriguing ideas throughout - despite the heavyhandedness of the reveal, I liked the idea that there'd be a conspiracy messenger service in the crosswords - but they never add up to a complete story, at least not one that we immediately understand as an episode of TV or even the first chapter of a larger story. Hell, even the oblique Wire pilot gave us some sense of where the show might be headed from here on out. All we get in Rubicon is the idea that there are some guys who are doing nefarious things, and eventually, our hero might find out about them and decide to do something about it. We're stuck in the first 15 minutes of the paranoid thriller, where the hero doesn't yet know everyone's out to get him and is just marveling at the weirdness of there being some sort of message in the crossword puzzle.
And yet …
I really liked a lot of the pilot. I liked how stylishly filmed it was. I liked the simple economy the show used to lay out that Will Travers (James Badge Dale) is the smartest guy around. I liked the little windows we got into the lives of the other people who work with him at his job, which appears to be an Insane Theory Factory. I loved that shot of the train suddenly veering into the path of another train, the subdued menace Will's boss gave off, the banality of stepping into that hall up on the top floor and feeling something sinister leaking around the edges. I loved the way the show shot things from odd camera angles to highlight the geometric shapes surrounding Will or the ways overhead shots would suggest the patterns swirling all around us we're not even cognizant of. I liked the way the conspiracy we're probably going to uncover seems to have ruined lives, like the friend of David's that Will goes to visit in a low-rent house. And I liked the way the opening scene suggested there's something much, much larger going on, without being explicit about it. It's all good stuff, and it's all going to bring me back.
But what's really going to keep bringing me back is the fact that this is AMC, and they've earned just a bit of trust from me at this point. These are guys who've taken two premises that seemed deeply constraining and spun three seasons worth of incredible material out of them. If you had told me five years ago that my two favorite series on TV would be about ad men in the '60s and a chemistry teacher who becomes a meth dealer, I would have scoffed. Instead, Mad Men and Breaking Bad leave me jonesing for more, the way the best TV does. Rubicon doesn't have as immediately assured a pilot as either of those series did, but it has a weird confidence of its own, and I can see the kind of show I might become obsessed with around its edges, dense and menacing and filled with a knowledge that the world is not as it should be.
- A friend compared this to the first episode of several top-flight BBC dramas in roughly the same genre, and I think that's right. This is less a traditional pilot and more a first chapter of something larger.
- I trust the fact that the show has Miranda Richardson means that we're going to get more for that character to do, yes?
- AMC has had pretty good luck with scoring in the past, but this show defines overscored. I don't mind the music, but it's used oppressively.
- Also, hello! We'll be talking about Rubicon throughout the first season here, unless it just turns out to be incredibly stupid and pointless. But we'll look at at least the first handful of episodes, and I'll be your guide, as it were.
- And, man, that "coming up on Rubicon" promo made me think we could be in for something that has a slow build and then becomes all kinds of awesome.