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Intellectually, most people understand that brand-name products and generics frequently contain the exact same ingredients and come off the same factory line — and that it’s the power of advertising and suggestion that make us stubbornly project a higher degree of worthiness on one rather than the other.
For years, 24 and then Homeland have been the big brand names in the international espionage television game, which didn’t stop networks from ordering shows in which dogged intelligence operatives traveled to desert-tinted Middle Eastern countries tracking down fictional Muslim bad guys and evoking 9/11. Most were surely also worse than those two progenitors, but it was their lack of pedigree or star power that made them seem particularly low-grade.
Air date: Aug 31, 2018
Amazon’s Jack Ryan premieres Aug. 31 and the thing it has going for it, more than anything else, is brand recognition. Adapted from the iconic Tom Clancy character by the ubiquitous Carlton Cuse and former Lost collaborator Graham Roland, Jack Ryan is fronted by John Krasinski, elevated from being a mere former TV star thanks to the blockbuster success of A Quiet Place. The series directors — Morten Tyldum for the pilot and a team led by Daniel Sackheim beyond that — are acclaimed, the supporting cast is top-notch and the globe-trotting looks authentic. These are qualities and they’re hardly incidental, yet they’re also shiny objects distracting from scattered character development, an all-too-familiar storyline and entirely too many scenes that are drained of maximum impact because they play out identically in every entry in the genre.
Put a different way, it may be flashy, but how big is the qualitative gap between Jack Ryan and Epix’s Deep State? It exists, but it’s not nearly as big as the gap in perception.
For those who don’t remember the times he was played by Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, Ben Affleck or Chris Pine, Jack Ryan (Krasinski) is on a career path destined to elevate him to the top of the government, but as our story here begins, he’s working as an analyst in the Terror Finance and Arms Division at the CIA. We’re reminded of Jack’s nerdy and low-level position multiple times as his data-driven job tracing financial transactions leads to Suleiman (Ali Suliman), a formerly anonymous Islamic activist who Jack becomes convinced might be the next Bin Laden. Jack is greeted with skepticism by new boss James Greer (Wendell Pierce), demoted from a more prestigious post under scandalous circumstances, and the CIA’s Deputy Director of Operations, Nathan Singer (Timothy Hutton).
Over the six hourlong episodes sent to critics, Jack and Jim establish an initially unsteady rapport while following the breadcrumbs to both Suleiman’s whereabouts and his inevitably nefarious endgame, visiting Yemen, Paris and Syria among other locations. It’s one major investigation over the course of the season, with Cuse and Roland making sure to sprinkle action set pieces of various scales throughout. There are heightened interrogations, chases, big and small precursor attacks and, proving the show can work intimately, one surprisingly taut instant-message conversation. Even if the series’ directors clearly didn’t lack for money, the bomb blasts or black site assaults aren’t what Jack Ryan does best and once you’ve seen Tom Cruise turn Paris into his own death-defying playpen, a few Paris establishing shots don’t provide the same rush. The show thrives in character-driven tension.
Once it’s established early on that, despite his “I’m just an analyst!” protestations, our hero has military training that makes him every bit as field-capable as he needs to be, it’s easy to lose track of how what Jack Ryan is doing is different from various times Jack Bauer or Carrie Mathison saved the world. The short version is that, as we’re told repeatedly, Jack is something of a boy scout and his patriotic enthusiasm colors the series’ chipper tone and rah-rah politics. Krasinski’s A Quiet Place image overhaul is to the show’s tremendous advantage, as the actor gets to be convincingly earnest and assertive without viewers anticipating the snarky, wry tone that won fans on The Office. Krasinski is also well-matched by Pierce, who looks to be having a ball charging gun-in-hand into the fray and sells a couple of tough monologues that quickly make Greer the show’s most interesting character.
A 10-episode season gives Jack Ryan room to be both breathless and to breathe. Even as Jack is desperately trying to be taken seriously and avert catastrophe, episodes find time for him to have a developing relationship with Cathy Muller (Abbie Cornish), a doctor who is probably Jack’s intellectual superior, even if she doesn’t know what Jack’s real job is. It’s a tribute to Krasinski and Cornish’s easy chemistry that shoehorning a meet-cute, text flirtations and a first date into end-of-the-world drama mostly didn’t annoy me. I’m less convinced by an over-telegraphed twist that will inevitably dovetail their work lives.
It’s exclusively the actors elevating the “Hey, we’re not just treating our Muslims as terrorists” subplots. Paradise Now star Suliman gives his character an intellectual and spiritual intensity, though the flashback-driven storyline about Suleiman (yes, it’s confusing) becoming radicalized is superficial stuff. As Suleiman’s wife Hanin, Saudi actress Dina Shihabi is even better, as she takes an arc that’s little more than a mother wanting to protect her kids into an unexpected series highlight. There’s a sense of preemptively addressing criticism that 24 and Homeland have also engaged in in comparable ways, where perfunctory complexity comes across as another trope and not nuance. I’m also not sure yet how to feel about a plotline involving a guilt-stricken drone pilot well-played by John Magaro, an arc that builds to what feels like an unearned climax in the sixth episode, one that could be redeemed subsequently.
Jack Ryan was, of course, birthed as a Cold War figure, and Cuse and Roland have to try to make him timely for 2018, knowing that the meddling Russian oligarch angle was exhausted in the character’s most recent film incarnation. They’ve chosen to situate him in a barely above-average intelligence context that, thanks to genre overuse, is close to generic. The Jack Ryan name will cut through the clutter and polished production values and the solid Krasinski should help viewers choose this Oreo, even if it’s only sometimes appreciably better than the store-brand sandwich cookie.
Cast: John Krasinski, Abbie Cornish, Wendell Pierce, Ali Suliman, Dina Shihabi, John Magaro, Timothy Hutton
Creators: Carlton Cuse and Graham Roland, based on the Tom Clancy character
Premieres: Friday, Aug. 31 (Amazon)
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