The allure of genre is still with us, even as so much of what’s best on television has left it behind. Sure, “The Handmaid’s Tale” has built often-thrilling tonal lurches into its dystopian vision and “Atlanta” shares only a running time (and sometimes not even that) with its forbears in the half-hour comedy space. But for showrunners looking for a clear way to lock in viewers, the tropes and the sensibilities of well-worn storytelling forms seem, still, a good place to start, even when the audience may have moved on.
Two new dramas work concretely within two very traditional genres, with mixed results. On AT&T’s Audience Network, “Condor,” debuting June 6, takes the story of “Three Days of the Condor,” the 1975 Robert Redford thriller adapted from a novel, and adapts it into a standard-issue spy drama. And on the Paramount Network, “Yellowstone,” debuting June 20, is a Western whose feints at the modern world come sparsely. Both series show glimmers of wanting to use their genre elements to say something larger — if not about the genre itself, then about the world in which we live offscreen. But both are ultimately trapped by their own trappings, telling stories we already know.
On “Condor,” Max Irons plays Joe Turner, whose plight is as generic as his market-tested name: A CIA analyst, he’s stumbled upon a complex web of associations whose very existence is top-secret, as is their possession of a weaponized plague virus. His knowledge is enough to get the rest of his office slaughtered in front of him, but canny Joe finds a way out of the situation, stumbling towards survival and, we hope, eventually taking his tormentors on before they can do harm.
The storytelling, here, is workmanlike and efficient. But Joe’s story comes to life too infrequently: Irons has little to play but the barest contours of action-story protagonist. He’s often confused, shocked, or desperate — and he’s always ultra-competent — but we know little else about who he is. Given the nature of the story, he has very few people to play against (his coworkers, with whom he had charmingly amiable chemistry early on, are promptly dispatched), which would seem to demand a character with idiosyncracies we could grab onto. (“Homeland,” which early on transcended its genre, understood this from its first moment.) But well-established form makes its own demands.
“Yellowstone” falls into a similar trap, building a story whose specifics are compelling but whose characters often fall short. In its feature-length premiere episode (the only one made available to critics), the story of the Dutton family spins out: Led by flinty patriarch John (Kevin Costner), the family is righteously protective of its corner of the Montana wild, having built it into America’s largest ranch. We’re told it’s the size of Rhode Island, and yet it’s not quite spacious enough for the egos of sons Jamie (Wes Bentley), Kayce (Luke Grimes), and Lee (Dave Annable).
The clashes between the indigenous population and the Duttons — personified by Kayce, a man more at home with horses than either the white family of his birth or the American Indian one into which he married — are fascinating stuff. Less so are brother-on-brother rivalries that feel drawn from a show with less ambition. “Yellowstone” is stunningly shot, and yet beneath its mountain vistas lies nothing new, just more squabbling.
Both shows are livened up by supporting performances, though, ones that break out of their environments and seem to be happening on other programs altogether. On “Condor,” Mira Sorvino bites off her lines with the gusto of a thespian who’s been too infrequently challenged in recent years; that she’s somewhat counterintuitive casting, with her reedy voice and giddy persona, in the role of an all-business counterterror chief makes her all the more delightful a counterpoint to the show’s dudgeon. (I weep thinking of the unusual and un-procedural line readings we lost when her role on upcoming CBS procedural “The Code” was recast.) And Brendan Fraser shows up as a quirky element of evil who’s as banal as it gets; his folksy touch, here as in “Trust,” leavens the material around him and makes it seem sparkily odd. They can’t save “Condor” from a dull leading man and a premise that’s less adapted than retreaded, but they make it much more fun.
And on “Yellowstone,” Kelly Reilly seems transported from a different show as the sister who exists to clean up her brothers’ messes; she’s tough, sure, but also outright cruel and deeply prurient, upfront about what she wants in a way her siblings, bound by codes of masculinity, can never be. Sure, she’s a cliche in her own right, but she doesn’t quite fit into the classic Western. And the spectacle of genres colliding into one another — the boundary-bending TV can accomplish in order to keep us interested — enlivens “Yellowstone” as long as she’s onscreen. When she’s gone, it’s a Western again: Beautiful, stately, attuned with history, and just another in a long line.
Drama series (10 episodes, 3 watched for review): AT&T Audience Network, Weds. June 6, 10 p.m.
Credits: Executive producers: Jason Smilovic, Todd Katzberg.
Cast: Max Irons, William Hurt, Leem Lubany, Mira Sorvino, Brendan Fraser, Bob Balaban, Katherine Cunningham, Angel Bonanni, Christina Moses, Kristen Hager, Kristoffer Polaha.
Drama series (10 episodes, 1 watched for review): Paramount Network, Weds. June 20, 9p.m.
Credits: Executive producers: Taylor Sheridan, Kevin Costner, John Linson, Art Linson.
Cast: Kevin Costner, Wes Bentley, Luke Grimes, Kelly Reilly, Cole Hauser, Dave Annable, Danny Huston.