Tuesday, July 27, 2010

AMC's Newest Series: Rubicon

With last Sunday's debut of Season Four of Mad Men, my original plan was to write a counterpoint to Kevin's analysis/shortcomings of the show. I agree to a degree with some of Kevin's commentary (I think Season Two was mostly a disaster), but I also disagree (Season Three redeemed the show for me with many moments where I found that I was in the world, not just looking at set decorations). However, after watching Season Four's debut I'm going to withhold my thoughts a week, because the debut was an almost complete flop. Choppy, ill-focused, unconvincing and, um "Who is Don Draper?" the supposed through line this year?! I thought that's what blinking Season One was about. There was little new here except more of Betty the bitch, etc. We discover that Don likes to be slapped around in bed by hookers (no surprise, due to his self-loathing), but not much more than we've been showed before. And what in God's name was the point of Peggy and the new irritating boy-toy constantly sighing "John" "Marsha" at each other? (It made no sense, since the novelty song they were quoting by Stan Freberg came out in 1951. What are they doing referencing it in 1964?)

As usual, the problem is probably control-freak, series-creator Matthew Weiner. He really has trouble writing coherent scripts (he had solo credit on this first episode), so I'm hoping he at least uses co-writers for the rest of the season or we're in big trouble. Anyway, I'll launch my defence, or not, depending on how good episode two is, next week. Instead, I'm going to talk briefly about the "sneak preview" of AMC's new conspiracy-plot series Rubicon (it debuts Sunday, August 1st) that came on after Mad Men.

Borrowing ideas from Sydney Pollock's Three Days of the Condor (1973) -- a group of people working for a government agency in an anonymous office trying to crack codes and uncovering conspiracies -- Rubicon looks like it might be fun if rather conventional. Having watched many conspiracy movies and TV shows in the past, I was able to say out loud plot developments just before they happened (Character: "I'll meet you tomorrow at 5:50 at the train station", Me: "No you won't." Character gets on train, Me: "there's going to be a train crash." SLAM, etc.) Starring James Badge Dale (The Pacific, The Departed), the show sets up a variety of possibly interesting conspiracies that relate to something or other to do with the government. (Of course. Hope to heck it's not some idiotic "how horrible the West is" scenario that has ruined Spooks/MI-5 in recent years.) Besides characters being killed in the aforementioned suspicious train crash, another character (Harris Yulin) blows his brains out after looking at a four-leaf clover and reading something in the newspaper (this is no spoiler, as it happens in the first 30 seconds of the episode). The reason behind this suicide was left ambiguous and will probably remain so for quite some time.

Rubicon doesn't seem to be carving out new ground. It embraces a more sombre tone (a bit more Tinker, Tailer, Soldier, Spy (1979) than The Bourne Identity (2002) or Enemy of the State (1998)), and that's okay. I'm willing to go with it for the time being, as long as it doesn't get lost in the clichés that dominate most of these types of programs/movies. Since shows like this usually flop on the major networks, I think this might hang around for awhile on tiny AMC. Critical-darling Mad Men only pulls down two million viewers in the US (a rating guaranteed to get a show cancelled on ABC, NBC, CBS or Fox), so Rubicon can probably coast along on one and a half million and still get renewed. We'll see.

At least it's clearly trying to be an "entertainment" rather than something profound which I freely admit Mad Men tries too often to be.

-- David Churchill is a film critic and author. He is putting the finishing touches on his first novel, The Empire of Death.

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