I SPY: Slow and methodical, Rubicon needs to tighten the threads of its conspiracy-theory plot.
'Two years ago, riding high on the success of Mad Men and Breaking Bad, AMC made a deal to develop a series based on Francis Ford Coppola's classic 1974 film The Conversation. The series was to revolve around Harry Caul, the surveillance expert originally played by Gene Hackman, as he took on different tracking jobs, all while trying to discover details about some widespread conspiracy he believed was closing in on him. That show still hasn't materialized (IMDB lists it as "in development"), but with Rubicon (Sundays at 9 pm), AMC has now brought us a drama with a similar premise: an espionage expert discovers he's stumbled upon a larger conspiracy, and he's beginning to realize that they — whoever "they" are — are on to him. At one point, our protagonist sits in his darkened apartment, lost in paranoia — I half-expected him to throw out all of his stuff, carefully remove all electrical wiring, pull up the floorboards, and grab a saxophone.
Rubicon, which "officially" premieres August 1 at 8 pm (the first episode previously aired in June, after the Breaking Bad season-three finale), focuses on Will Travers (James Badge Dale — Leckie from HBO's The Pacific), who works in some sort of off-the-grid multi-purpose intelligence agency. His job involves reading multiple newspapers from different countries, and it's there that Will spies something peculiar: an identical crossword printed in several different publications on the same morning containing some vague message about a secret fourth branch of government. After he shows it to his boss, he starts noticing how some things are subtly off, and that leads him to believe he's discovered something. He doesn't know what, and neither do we. There isn't — as of the first four episodes — even a hint at a specific conspiracy or dastardly motives.
Unfortunately, there's also not much of a hook beyond that massive, cloudy conspiracy angle. Will's work doesn't become that interesting until the third episode, and even then, it's underdeveloped. He doesn't have much of a personality, either, beyond "guy who seems good at his job." One of the evil henchmen asks another why they're following this guy; I wondered the same. The biggest detail we learn about him — that his wife and daughter were killed in the 9/11 attack — explains why he's so mopy all the time, but we get no hint of a personality. Will has a boss (Arliss Howard) who seems vaguely evil (possibly because of his all-black wardrobe), and a team of annoying co-workers, like Miles (Dallas Roberts), who's twitchy and intense, and the pompous-yet-insecure Grant (Christopher Evan Welch). The third member of the team — Tanya (Lauren Hodges), who may be drinking to help herself cope with the moral complications of her job — is the most interesting. But nobody is well served by the humorless, functional dialogue.
Despite all that, when the conspiracy stuff gets going and Will starts discovering more clues and cracking more codes, Rubicon manages to captivate — it just takes a few episodes to get there. Moving at a slow pace, the show does a good job of drawing out the tension of mundane activities like waiting for a subway train or eating breakfast in your apartment, giving us Will's perspective, allowing us to feel his increased level of suspicion, one that won't even let him respond to a friendly tip-of-the-coffee-cup salute from his neighbor.