“Treadstone,” which begins in East Berlin in 1973 and zooms ahead to multiple locations in the present day, is, we’re told in its credits, “based on an organization from the Bourne series of novels by Robert Ludlum.” The description seems apt, in its clunky way. The Treadstone organization, which trains people to be supersoldiers and to keep their tactical knowledge subconsciously buried, is an element of Jason Bourne’s story now surgically cut off from the context and narrative richness of a good novel or film. And “Treadstone” feels, too, based on an organization and not a novel or film in its rigorous movement between plotlines, something that comes to feel less like narrative balance and more like mandated check-ins on a show that hasn’t yet decided what it wants to be about.
These plotlines are generally similar enough: A person, somewhere, comes to realize the powers they contain within them, perhaps by being activated or by being forced in a moment of high tension to use violence. These individuals all seem to connect back to a Soviet plot, in a manner that feels less like an intriguing conspiracy and more like the realization that there needed to be some larger story or set of stakes than simply Bourne-again fighters emerging to battle.
It’s worth noting that said battle sequences, violent fights carried out by unlikely-seeming fighters, are vervy fun; though this show isn’t trying to measure up to the quality of Paul Greengrass’s “Bourne” movies, it brings with it some of the funky energy. (The actress Han Hyo-joo’s action work here, interspersed between quiet scenes of domestic life, deserves special mention.) And, at a more sprawling length than any individual “Bourne” movie, the series has room to do the sort of who-am-I, what-was-I-made-for contemplation that Damon’s Jason Bourne didn’t allow himself; perhaps the show’s most promising plotline is that of Patrick Fugit, a perpetually rewarding actor who, as a math teacher with hidden rage, confronts that which is haunting him, or programmed within him.
But Han’s and Fugit’s work are two fractional slices of a show whose ambition to try to capture a world’s worth of adventure seems, too often, like taking the easy way out from digging too deeply into story or character. Right now, “Treadstone” is a diverting series about an organization so diffuse that it’s easier understood as background noise between action. In the episodes and, perhaps, seasons to come, I’m hoping the show gives us more by paring back.
“Treadstone.” USA. Oct. 15. Ten episodes (four screened for review).
Cast: Michelle Forbes, Patrick Fugit, Michael Gaston, Shruti Haasan, Hyo Joo Han, Tess Haubrich, Tracy Ifeachor, Jeremy Irvine.
Executive Producers: Tim Kring, Ben Smith, Jeffrey Weiner.