'American Odyssey': TV Review

Virginia Sherwood/NBC
Ambitious miniseries gets bogged down in easy outs and convenient explanations.

An American military unit is allegedly killed in an ambush. The surviving member will try to prove to the world what really happened — plus lots of other complicated things.

The early minutes of NBC’s American Odyssey have all kinds of potential.

American soldiers on a secret mission in North Africa end up killing an Al Qaeda leader when they were really looking for his wife. It’s a huge and surprising victory. The only female member of the unit, Sgt. Odelle Ballard (Anna Friel, Pushing Daisies), also checks his laptop and discovers a secret payment from an American corporation.

American military field leaders congratulate the unit via phone and tell them to stand down and stay put. Private military contractors fly in minutes later, scoop up the body and the computer. Not long afterward, the same group of contractors returns gun blazing and kills every member of the unit.

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But they miss Ballard, who was luckily off in the brush, relieving herself.

And so we have a miniseries with Big Issues — fragging, funding of terrorists and, as the series starts to unfold, lots of other things.

And that’s where all the potential ends. Is it within the realm of possibility that some kind of large-scale corruption/murder/fragging could occur and then be covered up? Sure. But American Odyssey then exponentially stretches out its premise to include protesters, computer hackers, drone pilots, CEOs, generals — everybody is capable of being complicit in a Big Brother-type plot that’s just crazy enough to be easily discredited by people who hear the crackpot theories from other, clearly crazier people. We are all complicit.

Or something like that.

American Odyssey wants to be scary and big and so deep and horrible in the realm of conspiracies that it undercuts even the minimal amount of trust we have in governments, institutions and individuals circa 2015.

In the process, it drops an anvil on viewers’ heads. And then it becomes ridiculous. And then, well, there are so many other things to watch.

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Friel, who’s good in everything, is good here. Ballard's got a daughter, Suzanne (Sadie Sink), and husband, Ron (Jim True-Frost), back at home. They will be her drive to stay alive in all kinds of daunting scenarios. Back in New York, a corporate litigator named Peter Decker (Peter Facinelli) starts figuring out that maybe his company is involved in funding terrorists. He’s been ousted as a U.S. attorney and this is just the thing that could get him back in.

In downtown New York City, a protest (over the G8 summit) is exploding and we see Harrison Walters (Jake Robinson) get some TV news time talking about the burgeoning movement. One of those “crazy” conspiracy nuts that TV shows seem to like is Bob Offer (Nate Mooney) who gets inspired by Harrison and, via hacking, finds an email that Ballard sent just minutes after her unit had been killed, confirming she’s alive and the U.S. has been lying. Meanwhile, there’s a magazine reporter doing a story on Harrison who turns out not to work for the magazine at all and who gives Bob the creeps — right before Bob decides ...

Yeah, you see where this is going. Nobody can be trusted. If the forces of evil or Big Government or some multinational corporation want to get to you, they can get to you.

Be afraid. Distrust.

American Odyssey makes this clear over and over again until you realize, as the anvil drops, that it’s mighty convenient and not particularly interesting.

When someone is about to blow the cover on the whole thing and then gets run over in the street just yards away from meeting with Peter to tell him the truth, well, you know what kind of show you’re watching.

American Odyssey wants to be a Big Important Deal in the worst kind of way. There are just too many shortcuts or obvious twists as American Odyssey tries to deepen its machinations. If you can see the hands on the puppet strings, the whole thing ends up a lot less compelling than you imagined.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com
Twitter: @BastardMachine

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