Sunday, August 22, 2010

TV: If no one wants to solve it, is it a mystery?

Maybe just being on AMC means you're graded on a curve? Maybe AMC viewers, having been so jerked around for so long, are primed to accept anything?


We wondered that while watching six episodes of Rubicon last month. Back then, the plan was that Rubicon would stream online for free. Not at Hulu, you understand. That was the original plan, it would stream on Hulu after airing on AMC and that would give the new show a boost and word of mouth. But that quickly changed and all Hulu got was the ability to 'promote' the first episode. At which point AMC was stating it would stream it online at its site and at Crackle. They got high ratings for the second episode (originally aired August 1st and paired with the first episode) and, at that point, the greed set in and the mistaken assumption that they don't need anyone.

Rubicon needs any number of people. In fact, most viewers would probably quickly grasp that, most of all, it needs talented writers. Thus far, they've yet to discover any and series creator Jason Horwitch has to be the worst of all the writers for the first six episodes. It takes a lot to write a scene so bad it stands out even weeks after you watched it, but Horwitch managed to do just that when, attempting to establish character backstory, he had Tanya (Lauren Hodges) ask her co-workers about Will (James Badge Dale) and his many quirks. An innocent enough question but instead of playing light or involving the audience in the character, Tanya gets a dressing down in a don't-you-know-that-on-September-11th-he-lost-his-wife-and-daughter! If that wasn't enough to weigh down the scene, where the mother and daughter were located (not on a plane) was even more heavy handed. The scene brought everything to a standstill and left a nasty, sanctimonious scent wafting from the show.

Which is rather surprising when you grasp what Rubicon so desperately wants to be: A TV version of an Alan J. Pakula film. It wants to be Klute, The Parallax View, All The President's Men, Comes A Horseman and The Pelican Brief all rolled into one. Instead it's 1974's The Conversation . . . if Frank Capra -- and not Francis Ford Coppola -- had directed that film. Where there needs to be tension, there is slack. Where there needs to be an edge, there's a smiley face.

Rubicon tracks Will who works as an analyst for a US think tank. A crossword prompts questions -- a series of crosswords. It leads to the death of David, Will's boss, and to Will being promoted to David's spot. Will's confused by the death because David, who was also his father-in-law, parked his car at the train station in the parking spot numbered . . . 13. David would never have done that! And the parking spot was labeled "13" so David would have seen it!

While Will's puzzling that, Katherine (Miranda Richardson) is puzzling over her billionaire husband's death which doesn't make sense. She and their child are playing outside, Tom's meeting inside with a number of men and then he's killing himself?

At around this point, you're expecting the show to involve you. It never does. It also seems unaware that just talking about danger -- and filming badly lit scenes -- does not provide enough for to satisfy viewers. Rubicon plays the cards too close to the vest, never giving viewers enough to involve them. The only way you get around that is providing action thrills and spills but that never happens on this show that seems determined to make Masterpiece Theater look like snuff films by comparison.

Working with Pakula, Jane Fonda won a Best Actress Academy Award (Klute) but the character study she was allowed to essay isn't happening here. Even a talented actress like Miranda Richardson struggles to add layers to a character that is all surface and the nature of the show (a parlor game beamed across the nation) doesn't allow for improvisation or much exploration -- not to mention her scenes often seem to be chopped in editing before they actually end. Instead you get lengthy scene after lengthy scene of the allegedly 'haunted' Will coming off instead like 90210's Dylan whining about Kelly wanting to join a sorority. The writers can't write characters or dialogue, they can't write action, why are they even employed?

At one point, while debating whether or not to kill a suspect, Grant (Christopher Evan Welch) declares, "Values are for politicians, not analysts." It's one of those lines that stick out because it makes no sense. Politicians have values? Really? Since when. A number of viewers probably flashed, as we did, on Woody Allen's scene in Annie Hall where he declares that politicians are "a notch below child molesters." So much doesn't make sense like Will's apartment. If he's concerned he's being followed, might we suggest the first thing he would do is get an apartment with a door that couldn't be kicked in by a ten-year-old child? The door is thin, like you'd expect the door to a hotel room closet to be. It's not a door leading into an apartment. And that could actually create suspense if anyone noticed it but no one does.

Instead "danger" is one episode is Will walking across the street at night and almost getting run over -- almost -- by a not-so-fast moving car. He didn't look before crossing. Was it one of those random acts in the universe or a plot to kill Will?

The show plays like a text book badly written by the professor of a graduate course who can assign it to his/her students. While they might be forced to read it, no one is forced to watch Rubicon and based on the first six episodes, and steadily declining ratings each week, no one really wants to.
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