The riddle that is 'Rubicon'



8 p.m. Sunday


The perfect way to review Rubicon would be to leave out every third word and instead insert numerical clues leading you to what's missing. Then, after you decipher that portion of the riddle, there should be another series of clues awaiting you.

Of course, if I'd done that, you wouldn't bother to read on.

And that's the feeling I was left with after watching the first four episodes of this cryptic and often maddening series. There's so much cloak and dagger, so many mysteries and so few explanations that not until the fourth episode do you gain a complete understanding of what the characters actually do.

Their work is as intelligence analysts for a secret organization called the American Policy Institute, and their goal is to help the government carry out operations like locating and killing terrorists or figuring out where our enemies might strike next. The lead analyst is Will Travers (James Badge Dale), who looks like the love child of Lyle Lovett and Matthew Morrison of Glee and glowers perpetually due to his constantly active brain (think John Nash, the mathematician in A Beautiful Mind) and his secret sorrow.

His colleagues include Miles (Dallas Roberts), a quirky genius with a home life that's falling apart; Grant (Christopher Evan Welch), who's sort of an equally obnoxious but smarter version of M*A*S*H's Frank Burns until the fourth episode, when we begin to understand his purpose; and Tanya (Lauren Hodges), the newbie, who's there to ask the questions we would ask if we were in the room - like what WAG stands for. (Wild Ass Guess.)

Their projects - find out who's in a photo with a Russian spy; decide whether to drop a bomb on a specific Middle Eastern neighborhood - are comparatively easy to understand. But that's only a small part of Rubicon, which unfolds in a number of unintelligible directions that I won't disclose here except to say that you're never completely sure whether anyone is who they say they are. Are Will's bosses truly on his side? I'm not sure. Was the dead man really on the train? Impossible to tell. Who is the other dead man and what's his role in this story? No idea yet.

Since their work is shrouded in mystery, I suppose keeping us in the dark makes some sense. But while the acting is uniformly fine (Michael Cristofer, who plays Spangler, the head of API, is endearingly offbeat), the characters are basically glum, miserable people. They're not fun to be around, and how much time you want to spend with them will depend largely on how wrapped up you are in the mystery. Maybe it's fatigue from watching six seasons of Lost, but I'm not currently in the mood for more red herrings.

Executive producer Henry Bromell told The New York Times he's trying to create a "real" world where "you believe this is going on." His results are mixed.

One of the best parts of the production is that the show takes place not on a set but in an office building in lower Manhattan. When the characters sit in their office conference room, traffic whizzes by on the highway outside the window. This suggests that clandestine work is being done in plain sight, which adds some authenticity - and a bit of creepiness - to the proceedings.

On the other hand, a couple of details are strikingly wrong. In one instance, Will tries to determine why a series of crossword puzzles in major newspapers all contain similar clues. Fine, except the puzzles clearly aren't real. Anyone who knows anything about crossword puzzles - and you'd think Will would, given his extreme interest in this mystery - knows that crossword puzzles are mirror images of themselves. In other words, if there's a black space in the upper left corner, then there has to be a black space in the bottom right corner. These puzzles, as shown, would never be printed in a reputable paper.

Then there's the scene where a person receives the blood-covered clothing of her husband, who had killed himself weeks earlier. The blood is bright red. After weeks? Come on.

I realize these are relatively minor points, but if you're trying to create a world that feels real, attention to detail is vital. Letting viewers in on the mystery a little quicker wouldn't hurt, either.


Recommended for you