NBC describes “American Odyssey” as “’Traffic’-like,” which might explain the lack of inspiration permeating this multi-pronged drama, which, much like sibling USA’s “Dig,” hinges on a vast (and tedious) conspiracy. The intersecting threads involve a U.S. soldier in North Africa, a corporate lawyer and an Occupy-type political activist, each embroiled in a monstrous plot reaching up and into government. First-rate casting — including Anna Friel, Peter Facinelli and Treat Williams — can’t obscure the been-there, seen-that sensation, which doesn’t spur much curiosity about how these tentacles connect or offer much hope the show will last long enough to find out.
Friel (“Pushing Daisies”) plays the soldier, Sgt. Odelle Ballard, who while on a mission in Mali pursuing a wanted terrorist stumbles across computer files revealing a major corporation is providing money to the Jihadists. When she offers an inkling of what she has learned to higher-ups — namely, a senior officer played by Williams — a kill squad is dispatched (under the command of “Lost’s” Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), forcing Ballard to go on the run while she’s presumed dead by her husband (“The Wire’s” Jim True-Frost) and family.
Meanwhile, a New York attorney (Facinelli) working on a merger with the same company makes his own potentially dangerous discovery, and the aforementioned activist (Jake Robinson) becomes privy to information about a possible cover-up related to Ballard’s reported death.
There is, admittedly, quite a lot going on in the handsomely mounted pilot — written by Kay Foster, Adam Armus and director Peter Horton — which rapidly cuts back and forth among these stories and locales. Yet even with the cynicism engendered by Halliburton-like conglomerates during the Iraq war, “American Odyssey” (an 11th-hour name change from “Odyssey,” which probably sounded too Greek) feels strained, tired and devoid of nuance, related less to the disenchantment associated with what’s happening today than the paranoid political thrillers of the 1970s.
Nor does the series gain strength over four subsequent episodes, which gradually advance each of the stories while making the protagonists look particularly overmatched against their shadowy adversaries. Ballard, meanwhile, is subjected to an extended, repetitive, extremely violent and heavily subtitled ordeal that feels like a simple-minded version of “Homeland,” surrounding her with nefarious characters seemingly plucked from a catalogue of evil Arabs.
The show’s best hope, actually, might be divine intervention, hoping some of the potentially beatific ratings from “A.D.: The Bible Continues” — a very different show, even though both are at least partly shot in Morocco — rubs off. It’s worth noting, too, NBC’s spotty track record in paying off these sorts of elaborate “Trust us, we know where this is going” dramas, having failed to resolve “Crisis,” “The Event” or (most recently) “Allegiance.”
While sins of the past shouldn’t be visited on new series, “Odyssey” is complicated enough that viewers are to be forgiven for harboring reservations about getting hooked on a serialized drama that, despite a name that denotes a long and perilous journey, looks conspicuously short on fuel.