Although not as confounding as AMC’s disappointing “The Prisoner,” “Rubicon” is certainly big-brain TV — a paranoid conspiracy thriller, thematically similar to ’70s artifacts like “The Parallax View” and “Three Days of the Condor,” which dares to advance its cloistered plot not very far from where it started after previewing the first four hours. In that respect, there’s a slightly British limited-series feel to this handsomely shot, New York-set drama, which seems unlikely to be a huge hit but should develop cult credentials, partly filling the cerebral niche that the resurrected “Damages” occupied.
Fresh off “The Pacific,” James Badge Dale represents an unusual protagonist as Will Travers — a bookish, brooding, widowed nebbish who works as an analyst for a mysterious agency known as the American Policy Institute.
Assigned to connect the dots and sift through huge piles of information, Travers stumbles onto a seemingly random clue, identifying a pattern across multiple crossword puzzles in different newspapers. But who could have orchestrated such a thing, and what does the message mean?
Travers takes his concerns to his boss (Peter Gerety), at which point bizarre things begin to happen — including, in what’s still a completely separate arc, the suicide of a wealthy businessman, leaving behind his confused wife (Miranda Richardson) to sift through those pieces.
Created by Jason Horwitch — who subsequently left the series — and produced and run by Henry Bromell, “Rubicon” (the title is as obscure as everything else — a reference to the river Roman legions were forbidden to cross) dares to be smart but, as conventional thrillers go, it’s not very thrilling. Indeed, a lot of it involves Will and his eccentric co-workers, who certainly aren’t the kind of spies we’ve come to expect in movies and TV, but rather the ones who clean up the reams of hard-to-decipher information they gather.
Still, the cast is first-rate, including Arliss Howard and stage actor/playwright Michael Cristofer — in a disarmingly herky-jerky performance — as slippery higher-ups at the institute. By that measure, “Rubicon” seems culled from “The X-Files’?” “Trust no one” school of government bureaucracy. (Tellingly, there’s an apparent homage to “All the President’s Men” in a parking garage during one of the later episodes.)
AMC is wisely launching the show with a two-part premiere (an hour was previewed earlier behind “Breaking Bad”), and even that won’t do much to crystallize where the narrative is heading. And while the atmosphere is enticing (owing a considerable debt to Peter Nashel’s terrific opening theme), and the show itself represents another interesting addition to AMC’s lineup, one has to wonder how long “Rubicon” can sustain any kind of mass following while keeping its secrets so closely guarded. But we’ll cross that river (or not) when we get there.