'The Rook': TV Review

An enticing start becomes dull in a hurry.
6/30/2019

This Starz adaptation of Daniel O'Malley's superpowered spy novel trades the book's sense of humor and fun for a by-the-numbers thriller set in handsomely shot London.

Ravens and chess pieces aplenty pop up throughout Starz's new supernatural spy drama The Rook. One variation or definition of the title that isn't referenced is the one referring to the feeling of getting duped or ripped off, as in, "Fans of Daniel O'Malley's popular novel are likely to feel rooked by Starz's stylish-but-inert new adaptation."

There's enough intrigue in the stripped-bare skeleton of O'Malley's book to keep The Rook casually watchable, but even those who haven't read the tome will be able to sense that in a show this gloomy and conventional, opportunities for more colorful characterization and plotting must have been neglected.

After all, how can you start with a core premise this enticing and end up with something this dull?

Series creators Al Blyth and Sam Holcroft start in the same place as O'Malley's book. A young woman (Emma Greenwell) wakes up disoriented, soaked and surrounded by dead bodies. This sequence, intimately and evocatively captured by pilot director Kari Skogland, was probably my favorite part of the four episodes sent to critics, not a great sign since it's maybe five minutes before our amnesiac heroine even learns her name and it's downhill from there.

Fortunately, before her memory loss, she was an absurdly detail-oriented woman named Myfanwy — rhymes with "Tiffany" for purposes of the story, if not necessarily in the traditional Welsh — and she's a top-level pencil-pusher in a British secret service organization called the Checquy, dedicated to harnessing individuals with enhanced capabilities. Her rank is "rook." Don't bother worrying about what that really means.

Myfanwy has enhanced capabilities revealed swiftly yet confusingly as a series of letters and recorded messages lead her to her apartment, to her office and to meet an assortment of co-workers including the icy Linda Farrier (Joely Richardson), the inscrutable Conrad Grantchester (Adrian Lester) and the four-part consciousness-sharing Gestalt (Catherine Steadman, Jon Fletcher, Ronan Raftery).

Entering to cause complication is Monica Reed (Olivia Munn), a uniquely gifted operative with the American equivalent of the Checquy and representative of how swiftly Starz's The Rook leaves the plot of O'Malley's The Rook behind, beyond the dual questions of what happened to Myfanwy's memory and why?

On the page, O'Malley was able to build his story around the question of, "What is the craziest thing I can imagine?" so he balances the layered bureaucracy of the Checquy with Cronenberg-meets-Lovecraft drama involving a crazed Belgian body augmentation cult bent on world domination. On screen, Starz looks to build its story around the question of, "What can we afford to execute?" so Holcroft and Blyth swap in a bland saga of superpowered human trafficking. This dry and chilly approach to spycraft allows for perfunctory detective work and forgettable chases, but probably won't be able to encompass O'Malley's fits of grotesque whimsy like a house filled with mind-controlling mold or a massive cube of flesh-absorbing goo.

Or maybe it will in later episodes? I don't see how, though, because what Starz's The Rook has opted to do, most conspicuously, is ditch O'Malley's tone, which frequently borders on hilarious. In the book, character powers include wild contortionism or the ability to secrete mood-altering chemicals. Myfanwy's power is verging on impossible to explain, but it's indisputably epic. Here, it's run-of-the-mill electrical zapping.

The book has a nightclub-stalking vampire and a prognosticating duck. Here, it's boring handsome people in suits, sometimes in glass-walled offices and sometimes navigating through a nicely utilized London setting. I guess I get the desire not to go as willfully silly as O'Malley sometimes does. A book can sustain fortune-telling fowl better than TV. But to take a property as light on its feet as The Rook and render it this leaden is a disappointment.

It also detracts from the other charming thing about the book, namely the careful crafting of Myfanwy as two discernibly different characters, one featured in her letters and videos, the meek-yet-capable result of her childhood traumas, and the other reborn and unimpeded. Greenwell nails a mousy uncertainty, without the flexibility to do anything else. The story's most obvious and unavoidable source of tension — Myfanwy attempting to do a job she doesn't remember how to do, and not wanting to reveal her amnesia to co-workers who may be out to get her — somehow fails to materialize.

Both Richardson and Lester are stately and aloof, but the cost of removing the story from Myfanwy's exclusive perspective weakens her character and adds little to theirs. In the early episodes, only the third, with a great montage of their daily preparations, effectively captures what is unsettling and powerful about the idea of the Gestalt hive mind, which I suspect will utterly flummox anybody who hasn't read the novel.

Munn comes closest to injecting humor here, though the series' attempts to wedge this outsider character into the already flimsy plot reeks of obligatory pandering to American audiences and not organic storytelling. In theory, Monica could have been used as an additional point-of-entry character, rescuing Myfanwy from the weight of exposition. It just doesn't work out that way, despite the fact that the book has a different American character serving exactly this purpose. Instead of one focused narrative with one focused perspective and building momentum, the Starz series loses focus quickly on what questions need to be answered and what the stakes are if they're not.

What The Rook ends up feeling like is an attempt to engineer a serious-minded companion to Counterpart, except one that lacks Counterpart's twisty complexity, nuanced approach to character duality and general depth. Oh, and Starz canceled Counterpart, so now The Rook is both an inferior partner to a show that doesn't exist anymore and a subpar adaptation of a fun book.

Cast: Emma Greenwell, Joely Richardson, Olivia Munn, Adrian Lester, Catherine Steadman, Jon Fletcher, Ronan Raferty, Gina McKee
Adapted by: Al Blyth and Sam Holcroft from the book by Daniel O'Malley
Showrunners: Lisa Zwerling and Karyn Usher
Premieres: Sunday, 8 p.m. ET/PT (Starz)