'Treadstone': TV Review

Jonathan Hession/USA Network
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10/15/2019

USA's new series tries to offer Jason Bourne without Jason Bourne — and without much brains, but with lots of brainless action.

When the Jason Bourne films, based on the novels of Robert Ludlum, first rolled out, they benefited from being smarter than the average action picture and simultaneously jammed with intense, creative chaos. It was a good stew.

However, after the first three films — The Bourne Identity (2002), The Bourne Supremacy (2004) and The Bourne Ultimatum (2007) — it seemed that the story had run its course. Plus, Matt Damon was busy.

Ah, but it's really difficult to stop producers who know a money franchise when they reap rewards from it, so we got The Bourne Legacy (2012) with no actual Bourne but the actual Jeremy Renner. It seemed like the end — if Renner, a fine actor, couldn't re-spark the franchise, who could?

Matt Damon!

Yep, he came back for Jason Bourne (2016), the title a seeming nod to the need to reintroduce him after the Renner thing that detoured around the main man but lived in the universe. That should have been enough, right?

No!

There's now a TV series set to bow on USA Network called Treadstone that kind of hilariously touts itself in the press material as coming "from a producer of the Bourne franchise," which doesn't scream confidence as it tries to pilfer from the IP, adding "from the world of Jason Bourne" in materials. 

So, yeah, Treadstone is a gravy-train concept that even has to post this oddly-phrased note before episodes: "Based on an organization from the Bourne series of novels by Robert Ludlum."

OK, fine. You remember the "Treadstone" program from the films, right? It's a CIA black ops program that "wakes up" a sleeper cell of agents who don't remember much but can really kick your ass. With USA's Treadstone, that subplot is turned into the main plot: Wake up a bunch of actors not named Matt Damon or Jeremy Renner and have them morph "into nearly-superhuman assassins" around the globe — North Korea, Berlin, Paris, Russia, etc. — and take people out.

The missing ingredient, however, is the writing. Treadstone is all action and no brains, something that's pretty clear early on and then becomes an epidemic in the second episode, culminating in a hilarious car chase in which assassins from North Korea (but not the Treadstone sleeper agents, just for clarity) are chasing a former journalist turned British cab driver who is in France trying to... oh, forget it. But the funny part is that she drives like Jason Bourne, even though she was recently a journalist and probably hasn't been over 55 miles per hour in a cab ever, but that doesn't stop her from being able to navigate like a badass and flip other cars while driving her own. Again, no brains, all action. 

While lots of action films require the audience to suspend disbelief at times, Treadstone requires them to saw the tops of their own heads off and remove the gooey blob inside. It's the only way you'll survive the writing. Even the actors sometimes look stunned. Michelle Forbes plays CIA veteran Ellen Becker grappling with the long-dormant "Treadstone" plan and its new implications. In the first two episodes — sorry, it was too painful to go any deeper after that journalist turned cab driver went hilariously rogue — she doesn't get much screen time but looks tormented trying to figure out the plot. Another agent yells, "What the fuck is going on, Ellen?!" and it's a really great question. 

This is a series that flashes back in time and then feels the need to say "present day" when, yeah, it's pretty clear we're out of the 1970s at that point. Plus, there's a scene where CIA agent J. Randolph Bentley (I love the detail on the name there) successfully fights his way out of the grasp of the KGB, which had been trying to break him down and turn him. Bentley (Jeremy Irvine) comes in from the cold and should probably be a hero but within five minutes of the CIA asking him what happened, they accuse him of being a double-spy out of the blue ("What the fuck is going on, Ellen?!") and, yeah, the guns come out as the brain gets switched off yet again.

It's like that a lot in Treadstone. Characters do things where you think, "Hmmm, why would you say 'yes' to that?" or "Boy, that doesn't seem real smart," and it's all in service of creating fake drama and action. Also, Ellen isn't in the room when a North Korean agent tells the journalist turned cab driver (whom he has never met, by the way): "Someone's waking them up." 

Here's an interesting side note in the Treadstone goings-on: Tracy Ifeachor (Broadway's The Originalist) plays that cab driver. I'd like to see her in something better, because you can tell instantly that she's overqualified for the part (I mean, she even pulls off the ridiculous driving, and that's truly impressive). Brian J. Smith (Sense8) is also an actor with a lot to offer but isn't offered much here in the early going. See, there are a number of good actors in Treadstone, but they probably won't stand out unless they are fighting or jumping off roofs or driving crazy. It's not about the talking (there's about 40 producers, though).

As these sleeper agents are waking up, the bigger picture will probably be just who is doing the waking and for what nefarious purpose. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to figure out if a half-baked idea from a fully baked movie franchise is really worth your time given everything else that's on.

Cast: Jeremy Irvine, Brian J. Smith, Hyo Joo Han, Tracy Ifeachor, Gabrielle Scharnitzky, Michelle Forbes, Michael Gaston, Emilia Schule,
Created for television by: Tim Kring
Executive producers: Jeffrey M. Weiner, Ben Smith
Premieres: Tuesday, 10 p.m. ET/PT (USA)