Every cable network wanting into the quality TV drama game has to start somewhere. HBO broke in 15 years ago with Oz, and sister network Cinemax finally has Hunted…
Hunted (premiering Friday night at 10 ET), created by veteran X-Files writer-producer Frank Spotnitz, is a co-production by Cinemax and England’s BBC One. It stars Melissa George, one of the compellingly conflicted therapy patients on HBO’s In Treatment, as a spy who’s undercover, under scrutiny, and unable to trust even her closest associates.
The show’s British roots allow for the show’s structure and patience: eight episodes that tell an ongoing, complicated, increasingly intense story about a female spy who is betrayed, and nearly killed, on one mission, yet who returns for more. The American lineage — specifically, Spotnitz’s love of conspiracies, paranoia and stories that reveal themselves slowly and unexpectedly — is in play as well, resulting in the best international spy series since Showtime’s Homeland.
Unfortunately, coming in the wake of that superb series, especially with Claire Danes delivering the TV performance of the decade (to date, anyway) as tormented former CIA agent Carrie, Hunted cannot avoid comparisons. And as a labyrinthine spy drama with a strong female lead, it suffers from them, however slightly.
But Hunted can, and should, be compared to other quality TV series as well. Its for-hire secret agency, in which every boss and employee has a markedly different agenda, personality and skill set, is very like AMC’s Rubicon — except that Hunted actually leads somewhere, and, at the end of its first season of storytelling, provides an actual conclusion. In framework, Hunted also is a bit like ABC’s Alias and USA’s Covert Affairs, only more serious, and less episodic, than either of those programs.
By sending George’s Sam Hunter, once she returns to her private espionage firm called Byzantium, undercover on a single mission and keeping her there, what we lose in the number of costume and wig changes we gain in the complexity of both characters and drama.
Sam ingratiates herself into the target family by saving the life of a young boy, whose father is a recent widower who loves his son dearly. Also very attached to the boy: his grandfather, powerful millionaire Jack Turner, who lives in the same well-fortified estate and is the real target of Sam’s surveillance operation. The boy is innocent. The grandfather is not.
But as played by Patrick Malahide (left), one of my favorite supporting actors from The Singing Detective,
the grandfather, Jack Turner, is like some sort of well-dressed cross between King Lear and Tony Soprano: manipulative, ruthless, and not above soiling his well-manicured hands with dirty work.
And among the many people on Sam’s side of the fence, working with her at Byzantium, there’s a familiar and captivating face there, too. Playing Deacon Crane, one of the security firm’s bosses, is Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, sporting a wholly different accent and demeanor than when he terrorized the prison as one of the toughest and most explosive inmates on Oz.
It’s a nice, perhaps unique claim to fame: Here’s an actor who has played a significant supporting role in the first ambitious, truly artistic drama series on HBO and on Cinemax.
Other supporting players in Hunted include Stephen Dillane, Adam Rayner, Stephen Campbell Moore, Morven Christie and Lex Shrapnel, but this is very much Melissa George’s show. Her character of Sam not only is at the center of the action, but of the back story: What happened to Sam as a child, after her own mother died, is as crucial a part of the Hunted puzzle as who, among her own colleagues, wants her dead, and why.
Had Hunted arrived on TV before Homeland, it would be lauded more loudly and widely — but its slowly revealing narrative, and swiftly shifting allegiances, delivers suspense and mystery in the elegant, intelligent manner of The Parallax View and the original TV version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Hunted has a strong leading lady in Melissa George, an equally strong villain in Patrick Malahide — and, throughout its eight episodes, increasingly strong reasons to watch, enjoy, and be surprised.