“Shooter” is what you’d get if you put “24,” “The Fugitive,” and the Special Forces memoir “No Easy Day” into a blender and came up with a workmanlike product that is less appetizing than it should be, given the ingredients. It’s not difficult to see why a pitch about a particularly resourceful Marine on the run went over well, considering the number of Seal Team accounts on best-seller lists and the success of “American Sniper.”
But Americans have just endured a bruising and particularly unpleasant year, full of vitriol, violence, and constant accusations of treason. It’s reasonable to wonder if audiences will be eager to see a drama in which brains are splattered across the screen more than once, and in which an obsessive man rather predictably struggles with the tangled knot at the heart of a conspiracy.
At one point in an early episode, a character even uses the word “rigged,” though it’s only in relation to an arcade game that irks him. USA’s “Mr. Robot” is, of course, proof that, given the right execution, viewers are more than willing to fall down a topical rabbit hole along with a show’s protagonist. But that’s where “Shooter” goes awry: it’s simply bland and tends to dutifully follow the paths that Jack Bauer blazed more than a decade ago.
In “Shooter,” Ryan Phillippe plays Bob Lee Swagger, the best sniper in the Marines, a humble but legendary warrior who has put down his weapon in order to focus on his family back in the U.S. Alas, a peaceful retirement is not to be his fate: He gets caught in the snares set by a group of men intent on serving the interests of various governments through assassination attempts and strategic misinformation. Swagger is framed for crimes he didn’t commit and must simultaneously evade capture and clear his name. He relies on the help of his wife, Julie (Shantel VanSanten), and Nadine Memphis (Cynthia Addai-Robinson), an FBI agent who starts to question the findings of the Swagger-related investigations she’s involved in.
It’s a sturdy set-up for an action-thriller — and not surprisingly, a book and a 2007 Mark Wahlberg film of the same name preceded the USA series. Unfortunately this incarnation of “Shooter” doesn’t wring the greatest potential rewards from that set-up. Part of the problem is that the drama touches on a host of hot-button issues without having much of anything to say about them. That would be fine if the dramatic momentum propelled the viewer past the unexplored themes and the thinness of the story. But in the end, it’s an exposition-heavy drama with the occasional burst of action, and despite the general competence of the cast, there aren’t many compelling reasons to be invested in the fate of anyone on screen.
“Shooter” was originally set to premiere in mid-July, was pushed to late July, and finally kicked down the road to its November premiere. Given that the show features a lot of blood, weaponry, and targets viewed through a sniper’s scope, the hesitancy about when to put it before the public was understandable. The nation’s ongoing history with mass shootings — including several high-profile incidents during the summer — made the decision to postpone the premiere seem quite rational. But while the hesitation surrounding whether to premiere it after the Pulse nightclub shooting makes sense, the program’s own timidity about its subject matter is a little more problematic.
“Shooter” makes a few mild political points, most notably when Swagger confronts a group of hunters whose choice of weaponry and methods couldn’t be less sporting. Though there are a series of detailed and almost fetishistic depictions of a sniper going about his work, he is never portrayed as someone who yearns to take lives. It’s a job to him, and Phillippe conveys Swagger’s firm and calm commitment to his mission within the confines of a rather limited characterization. Also, in showing a veteran who is a good father and husband and a contributing member of society (until the misfortunes that derail his life), “Shooter” provides a welcome contrast to the kinds of exploitative shows that use former service members as cartoonish villains or deranged murderers.
Those modest attributes aside, everything else about the drama feels just a little undercooked and rudimentary. Swagger’s wife is given a steely resolve by VanSantel, but his family members, like the rest of the characters, are two-dimensional at best. A plot about Russian interference in world affairs could have had a ripped-from-the-headlines feeling, but it’s undistinguished and rote.
This is a nation fascinated with guns, secretive plots, unseemly meddling at the highest levels of government, the use of military force, and the secrets of covert operatives. Perhaps the most unsettling thing about “Shooter” is that it muddles through all those subjects in an attempt to deliver a conspiracy-driven action hour, but it never quite becomes more than the sum of its recognizable parts. It’s easy to see why the show was commissioned, but it’s harder to conceive of a scenario in which it will capture or sustain the attention of the public.