AMC's Rubicon was acquired by BBC4 last summer, but in the wake of initially frosty US reviews and cancellation, they've only just decided to air it. This presents British viewers with a familiar dilemma: should you invest time in a defunct US TV show, and one with a notoriously slow start and divisive finale? The answer is a cautious yes. Rubicon is a 1970s conspiracy thriller transplanted to a post-9/11 world; meaning there are mobile phones, but not much reliance on the internet. Will Travers (The Pacific's James Badge Dale) is a prodigiously clever analyst for the American Policy Institute (API), which appears to be a think-tank connected to the CIA, tasked with poring through intelligence files. One day Will notices what he believes to be a clue hidden deep inside the crossword puzzles of various major newspapers, using a four-leaf clover as its key. The clues signify the three branches of government (legislature, executive, judiciary), but what does the fourth leaf/branch refer to?
Will's obviously stumbled upon a government conspiracy, which becomes clear when he informs his superstitious boss/father-in-law David (Peter Gerety) of his findings, only for David to be killed (taken out?) in a bizarre train crash. A death that arouses suspicion when Will notices that David's car was parked in the 13th slot at the station, a number he pathologically avoided in real-life. Rubicon began on a tentative note, with no real sense of urgency. I'm sure some people will find this a hard adjustment to make, if they were expecting something action-packed and fast-paced, but it's a perfect recipe for a TV series taking its cue from the paranoid movies of the '70s. Rubicon's all about its slow-burn, chilly atmosphere, retro weirdness, and teasing us with inklings of a vast mystery. James Badge Dale may have partnered Kiefer Sutherland in a season of 24, but Will's no Jack Bauer figure -- he's a feather-haired egghead and haunted widower, whose gift/curse is a high-functioning mind that makes him the perfect person to crack complex puzzles and, we hope, expose a huge conspiracy to the world.
This wasn't a perfect pilot, by any means. The characters beyond Will and David were sketchily-written, particularly the docile women, and there was perhaps 15-minutes that could have been tightened. But the intention was to create a mood, get audiences accustomed to its measured pacing, introduce a contemporary world that's also a throwback to a bygone age, and set the ball rolling on a mystery that's bound to get deeper over time. Why did an old man commit suicide immediately after seeing a four-leaf clover in his morning newspaper? Why is API bigwig Spangler (Michael Cristofer) in Washington, meeting with a group of old men, pleased that the aforementioned suicide happened? Was David's birthday gift to Will (a motorcycle with the note "Drive away. Don't look back. It's time") encouraging him to leave town? Was David aware that his son-in-law's kicked a bee's nest by spotting the crossword puzzle communication? And if that's bad news, why did David report Will's findings to his superiors? Does Ed Bancroft (Roger Robinson), a former code-cracker who went crazy, but kept in touch with David, know more than he's letting on about the crosswords when Will tracked him down to pick his brains? And is the fact Will's wife and child were killed in the World Trade Centre on 9/11 have any bearing on Rubicon's conspiracy?
Overall, Rubicon is already humming with questions to explore, and there's a sense of purpose and intelligence to the story even at this nascent stage. It could have been nimbler and more exciting to grab attention, but the kind of people who'll be attracted to a series like this will undoubtedly relish its disposition, precision and crepuscular atmospherics.
WRITER: Jason Horwitch DIRECTOR: Allen Coulter CAST: James Badge Dale, Miranda Richardson, Arliss Howard, Jessica Collins, Dallas Roberts, Christopher Evan Welch, Lauren Hodges, Roger Robinson, Michael Crisftofer, Peter Gerety & David Rasche TRANSMISSION: 7 April 2011, BBC Four, 10PM