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Watch AMC's "Rubicon" -- And Watch It CLOSELY!
July 30, 2010  | By David Bianculli

Since AMC got into the one-hour drama series business, it's made one masterpiece after another. One was Mad Men, the other was Breaking Bad, and both are still on the air. Starting Sunday night at 8 ET, they're joined by a third new series, a modern-day spy thriller called Rubicon. Is it another TV triumph? Too early to tell. A TV show that should be watched? Most definitely... and very, very closely.


Rubicon is the story about spies at an American agency that takes all the information gathered by other agencies and tries to make sense of if all. The central characters in this drama are uber-geeks -- the kind of spies who read books on string theory during their off hours, and find hidden meanings in the replication of clues in independently published crossword puzzles.

I've seen the first four hours of Rubicon, which was created by Jason Horwitch and is executive produced by Henry Bromell. (Bromell has a career's worth of impressive TV credits, including Homicide: Life on the Street, Chicago Hope and I'll Fly Away.)


Two of those hours are shown Sunday from 8-10 p.m. ET -- and by the time they're over, you'll get a feel for the show and its aims. It's a conspiracy-paranoia brain twister -- a drama that, as its creators freely admit, was inspired by, and intended to evoke, such vintage conspiracy movie thrillers as All the President's Men, Three Days of the Condor (left) and The Parallax View.

Those are three of my favorite films from that era, and Rubicon evokes the same "trust no one" feeling nicely. The most notable difference is the pace: After four hours, I'm still not sure where Rubicon is going, much less whether the destination will be worthwhile. But it's a show that keeps you thinking, and guessing -- and one that demands your full attention as well as a hearty supply of patience.


I can't say this clearly enough: You cannot watch Rubicon casually and expect to follow it, much less enjoy it.

Unlike so much of what passes for TV drama these days, it is not a show that rewards or tolerates multi-tasking. Watch Rubicon, and watch it attentively -- or don't bother watching it at all.


Otherwise, if you're doing the bills, or the dishes, or reading the paper (hah: like that still happens!), you'll miss too much.

Like, for example, the four-leaf clover that pops up as a menacing, unexplained harbinger of doom. Or the number "13" that pops up not only as an important numbered spot in a parking lot (see photo at top of column), but as the very first word spoken in this series, yelled as part of a hide-and-go-seek countdown as a young boy runs in the snow.


Rubicon stars James Badge Dale, who played Leckie on HBO's The Pacific, as Will Travers, the string-theory-reading loner at the New York-based intelligence analysis agency, innocuously named the American Policy Institute. His boss, the only person at API to whom he relates, is David Hadas, played by wonderful character actor Peter Gerety. Early on, Will takes his puzzling crossword-puzzle discovery to David, which sets a whole round of even more mysterious moves and counter-moves into action.


But action, really, may be too strong a word. Rubicon, at least in the first four hours, is more obsessed with mood than with mayhem. Characters count more than carnage. To find the closest equivalent in a previous TV spy drama, you have to go all the way back to that classic Alec Guinness vehicle, the imported 1979 miniseries brilliantly dramatizing John Le Carre's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

Time, and future episodes, will tell whether Rubicon earns that comparison more fully -- and deserves the heaps of praise duly bestowed upon Mad Men and Breaking Bad, rather than the equally duly bestowed disappointment heaped upon AMC's misfire of a miniseries remake of another classic paranoia spy drama, The Prisoner.


Rubicon is a big risk for AMC, because many viewers will give up on it early because too little is explained or resolved. (Running the first two hours as a double-header is a clever move.) But Rubicon, also, is a smart risk, and a smart show -- AMC, right now, is as interested in building reputation as viewership. And Rubicon, when the jigsaw puzzle is more complete, may well turn out to be another key piece.

If you can't wait until Sunday night, AMC, which already has sneak previewed episode one a few times on its own network (after the season finale of Breaking Bad and the season premiere of Mad Men), is making the first hour available immediately on its website. Watch, if you wish, by clicking HERE.

And while I'm offering links to elsewhere, here's a link to audio and text of my radio review of Rubicon for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross, which ran Wednesday. Read that, and listen, by clicking HERE. (Or, if you're listening to Fresh Air Weekend this weekend, the review is being repeated there, too. Check, as they say, your local listings.)

Either way, please return with your reactions once you've seen an hour, or two, or four, or more. The TV WORTH WATCHING readership is PRECISELY the target audience for Rubicon -- so I'm interested in whether these guys have hit their mark. And, no doubt, so are they...




I watched what felt like 2 hours (maybe it was just one) after the Breaking Bad season finale. I decided I wasn't going to watch it unless it found a way to bring me back later. After this review, I might give it another chance up front and decide again. It was somewhat interesting, but felt like work watching it, more than entertainment.

Comment posted on July 30, 2010 3:09 PM

TAB said:

Over-analyzing a series, in this case, could be a Jungian Rubicon.

[Especially for those who think Jung. -- David B.]

Comment posted on July 30, 2010 7:30 PM

TAB said:

Guess I'll take some R & R, lest I create another Y & R pun. Maybe it's a Mad Men thing . . .

Comment posted on July 31, 2010 6:59 AM

Mac said:

Spoiler alert.
Any story that has a suicide early on,and one that includes seeing the gun pointed at self,gets me on the remote. I remember watching a Schwarzenegger movie on HBO while imprisoned in a vacation hotel and that moment proved such a story cop out that I knew I had to turn the tube off and take a walk. That was porn.
David,you may just convince me to just fast forward past that moment(first episode is taped after Mad Men)with mention of "The Parallax View". Now there is one creepy political thriller worth repeated viewings. Just found out in a wiki search that director Alan Pakula considers Klute,Parallax and President's Men to be a paranoia trilogy. One is,sadly,a true story.
[What? Klute was real? -- David B.]

Comment posted on July 31, 2010 7:37 AM

Eileen said:

I've seen a lot of hype on AMC, but your mention of The Parallax View would be the hook for me. Simply one of the finest movies ever made.

And, speaking of AMC, amazing how they have evolved over the past few years. The former purveyor of old movies is now a major player in the one-hour drama sweepstakes. Good for them. Unlike NBC, AMC is apparently will to invest $$ in creativity and casting to provide the viewing public with, to date, two of the finest dramas ever on tv: Breaking Bad and Mad Men. Here's hoping Rubicon is that third feather in their cap.

The commercial networks should be following their lead, not dumping more of the same on us.

[Couldn't agree more -- or say it better! -- David B.]

Comment posted on July 31, 2010 12:41 PM

I agree with the both of you. It is very commendable to go after shows like this. People usually don't have the patience for quality acting without constant explosions or climaxes every 2 minutes. Instead of resorting to action or slapstick comedy, they're finding real acting talent and making shows that really evoke some emotion and get people excited. If you agree with me then you'll probably agree with this recap of the first 2 episodes http://ology.com/screen/rubicon-recap-strange-things-are-happening-me Its a good read.

Comment posted on August 2, 2010 12:15 PM

Jim said:

Was Rubicon aired before on another network -- or did AMC do a sneak preview of the first episode several months ago? I think I've seen this, or a show that had a very similar scenario with crossword puzzles getting an intel wonk in trouble, in the past year.

[The first sneak preview was after the Breaking Bad season finale, so you're not crazy. Just perceptive. -- David B.]

Comment posted on August 2, 2010 11:02 PM

Travis said:

This show had a pretty rough start. I really like the premise though, and I think that it had some potential. Unfortunately though I think too many people tuned out before it could really grow and make use of that potential...

Comment posted on July 12, 2011 10:32 AM
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