AMC’s Rubicon received a stellar welcome with its August arrival, which is pretty much the network’s norm these days. The show about a think-tank of government code-breakers, one of whom begins to investigate a larger conspiracy after his father-in-law (and boss) dies under mysterious circumstances, had critical acclaim and scored a ratings record for the network with its premiere. In subsequent weeks, the numbers have dropped off a bit but it’s still holding steady as Mad Men’s lead in; the one thing I keep noticing, however, is a periodic but persistent rumbling of complaint from TV geeks who are jumping ship because the show is, in their minds, just too damned slow. The usual comparisons to watching paint dry or observing strangers reading the newspaper for an hour followed. (Others have said that the series is so coy about its inner workings that they have a hard time even describing what it’s about to someone who doesn’t watch.) That got me to wondering – since I’m pretty much in dweeby lust with the show at this point, what am I seeing that they’re not?
Is it possible I’m reading too much into Rubicon’s – okay, I’ll grant you this much – ultra-deliberately paced mysteries and therefore generating excitement where none should be had? Maybe. But I doubt it. If anything, the entire point of the show– as was the case for numerous 1970’s-era conspiracy thrillers like The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor, from which it clearly draws inspiration both structurally and thematically – is to hold the audience hostage to its secrets, along with the show’s protagonists, for as long as possible. Correct? (Hell, last Sunday’s episode – the show’s tenth – marked the first time that the leads played by James Badge Dale and Miranda Richardson actually interacted together, other than a quick run-in at a cocktail party a few weeks back that was clearly intended to get our backs up and then leave us hanging.) And we’re not talking teasing-type secrets in a Lost fashion, where there are smoke monsters and polar bears running around to bring the awesome while we wait… we are talking pencil-pushing, government-bureaucracy-speed mysteries. And that’s where so many people seem to have a problem.
Now, I’m not criticizing anyone for whom Rubicon is too slow; we all have our own tastes, and if we all liked the same kinds of shows then there would be no room for debate and discussion and, frankly, that would be really freaky, like an old Twilight Zone episode or something. Nobody wants that. I guess what I’m trying to figure out is where the dial stops for the many that lose interest, versus those of us who are hooked. I think part of it may lie in the fact that when nothing seems to be happening – either you’ve got two characters on a roof circling each other’s conversation without revealing anything, or a group of the API analysts sitting around a conference table ostensibly doing their jobs – in fact, there is shit-tons happening under the surface if you devote your undivided attention to what’s happening on screen.
So much of what goes on in Rubicon’s characters’ lives happens in the minute details, the ramblings about their home lives that don’t pertain to the show at all or the office politics that play across their faces. (It helps that the entire cast is pretty goddamned amazing.) Meanwhile the erstwhile “action” of the show – kidnappings, bombings, murders of terrorist suspects that are being investigated by the gang at API – gets talked about constantly but it all happens off-screen. When Tanya and Miles were whisked away to foreign soil to oversee the interrogation of a terror suspect, they glimpsed some of “the shit” but never found out exactly where they were… and neither did we. AOL TV’s Maureen Ryan may have been on to something when she called the show “the anti-24”; if you try to imagine Jack Bauer sitting still for as long as this crew, he’d probably have a mental breakdown.
Still, I just can’t stop watching – even if doing so means going into complete lockdown and barricading myself in front of the TV for an hour to make sure I don’t miss anything. I can’t even impair my perception in the teeniest bit; I had a glass of wine before watching the show a couple of weeks back and did find my attention drifting. Heinous! Perhaps even more than any mythology-heavy genre show, a show like Rubicon insists that you cannot miss a single moment – not only to keep track of the plot lines, but what might be happening between the plot lines. That’s pretty damned nerdy, no? Obsessing over the slightest little inflection in a line reading that might hit at intent is half the fun. I mean, is there a line delivered by Arliss Howard’s marvelously shifty Kale Ingram that doesn’t seem either loaded with double meaning or constructed purely to run interference? (Well, maybe less so now that he’s feeling like a target, too.) Now that Dale’s Will Travers has finally hooked up with the pretty neighbor across the way (though he did it primarily to get out of his bugged apartment), we are supposed to doubt her sincerity in exactly the paranoid manner that Will is… right?
This is what we Rubicon addicts seem to feed on… the notion that even the most mundane of circumstances might be full of clues, and that the safest of harbors is really not so safe at all. That suspense keeps us going even when the characters are chasing their tails and the underlying secrets are maddeningly opaque. And even when our characters are sitting around in a drab corporate basement in the middle of the night staring at video monitors for hours, if there’s the slightest whiff of danger around the corner, it’s worth investing in. (By the way, short of danger I’d settle for Miles scoring with the cute girl with the Triforce tattoo. +10 for think-tank nerds in love.) But what say you, folks?… am I on the money, or do I have the patience of a saint?
More thinky-thoughts on fall series coming soon. (Fringe? Still amazeballs! Hawaii Five-0? Surprisingly good! The Event? Un-eventful FAIL!) In the meantime, an addendum to my first Nerdist blog, in which I ranted about BBC America filling airtime with Star Trek: The Next Generation and other thoroughly non-British shows: Well hot damn, it appears they’ve taken me up on one of my suggestions. Law & Order: UK starts airing October 3rd. Check it out! It’s quite good, and watching Lee Adama and Martha Jones put away baddies is great for the nerd soul. I shall now resume poking BBCA with a stick until they do something really stunning, like pick up QI…
Addendum #2: Congratulations to ‘adoyaradev1’ for being the only person to correctly identify Fox’s Lone Star as the first casualty of the fall TV season in our dead pool poll, by write-in comment vote. It just got the ax.