Rubicon had a lot going for it when it premiered earlier this summer: the AMC pedigree (Mad Men! Breaking Bad! That upcoming show about zombies everyone is so excited about because they love zombies!); an outstanding, suggestive pilot that harkens back to much-loved seventies conspiracy flicks like All the President’s Men, The Parallax View, and The Conversation (much-loved in the sort of high-income, higher-education households that = money for AMC advertisers, anyway); and in James Badge Dale, the best looking Brillo-haired leading man since Glee’s Matthew Morrison. What could possibly go wrong! In two words? A lot. Behind the scenes, creator Jason Horwich was 86’d after the pilot, leaving the show scrambling for direction: What seemed like icy menace in the first hour quickly defrosted into aimless boredom. But hope remains! Rubicon is still one of the best-looking shows on television and the viewing public still yearns for a complicated mystery to fill the Lost-sized hole in its hearts. So with that in mind, we humbly present five ways Rubicon could go from Rubican’t back to RubiCAN! (Woof.)
1. It’s the conspiracy, stupid.
Rubicon’s premise is simple and intriguing: Will, a brilliant analyst at a shadowy government think tank (the South Street Seaport dwelling, terrorist assassinating air strike-ordering American Policy Institute) finds himself under surveillance by ominous forces after he pokes around in the mysterious death of his ex-father-in-law and friend, David. All good! The problem isn’t that Rubicon is inspired by the 1970s paranoid thrillers mentioned above; it’s that it is slavishly copying them. Supposedly in 2010, the workers at the API pore over newspapers as if they are holy tablets, scribble things manfully with Bic pens and liken loud noises to “pinball machines.” Even worse, what little we know of the show’s overarching conspiracy involves grim white men in suits meeting in wood-paneled rooms to drink whiskey and scheme. Bugs are placed inside of smoke-detectors. Will is perpetually followed by faceless white guys (more on that later) who are easily spotted. A secret meeting is held in a Washington, D.C. parking garage for god’s sake! This isn’t homage, this is lazy.
It’s a complicated world out there, and issues of privacy and identity have trickled down to those of us who don’t have G5 security clearance, a corduroy jacket, and a sensible briefcase. A braver show would make Will’s situation feel immediate and relatable. (Also it would make the situation make sense: In the pilot, David tells his boss that he has discovered the crossword puzzle code — when really Will did. The next day David is killed in a ridiculously complicated train crash. Since then, Will has continued to dig and yet is allowed to ride all the trains he wants without fear of catastrophic injury. As Liz Lemon might say: Whuck?)
2. It’s not the heat, it’s the humanity.
One of the only memorable characters on Rubicon is the preposterously named Kale Ingram, Will’s boss, who is played as if sponsored by the Smithfield Company, by Arliss Howard. Kale (Seriously! Kale!) is the sort of person who reads documents by holding his glasses six inches in front of his face, announces he has the “immune system of a hydra,” and likes to stand in his dark office and stare at the West Side Highway and declare “so much darkness, so many shadows.” Which is to say: he is not like a person at all. This week’s episode attempted to flesh out Kale by making him a potentially sympathetic disco-hating ex-CIA assassin who owns a nice townhouse in Chelsea, has a live-in boyfriend named Walter, and makes a mean white bean salad. Okay! If you say so!
But with a show like Rubicon — so dependent on mood and and tone — having relatable characters is key. (The enduring secret of Lost: come for the polar bears, stay for the star-crossed Koreans.) And Rubicon is filled with sallow, twitchy white people who, to be frank, aren’t all that pleasant to be around. (Seriously: every character on the show besides Roger, the Magical Crazy Genius, and Hal, the minimally used computer tech, is white. Extremely, grain-of-rice-on-a-baby-harp-seal-in-a-blizzard white. Sure, the great Isiah Whitlock, Jr. is on the show, but he’s literally said two sentences in six episodes. Some real diversity might at least liven the place up.)
Furthermore, Will has become significantly less interesting since the pilot. Initially a complicated genius still mourning for his wife and baby daughter lost on 9/11 (we were told he’s never been late for a meeting since, an interesting character quirk that’s been completely abandoned — in fact, Will was noticeably late for a meeting in episode two), he’s now become an unhinged and unpleasant workaholic who takes
red herrings motorcycles apart in his studio apartment in his spare time. What’s he doing all this poking around for? The dead father-in-law who is barely mentioned? His weird, not-at-all-there flirtation with the (suddenly horny!) Maggie? Simple TV arithmetic: Give us a reason to like Will, and we will like the show.
3. Plots that make us plotz.
It’s been hard enough slogging through Will’s turgid pursuit of truth and justice or whatever — but Rubicon devotes huge chunks of each episode to a plot line that as of episode six still has little to no connection with Will’s quest. Miranda Richardson plays Katherine Rhumor (!!), widow of a powerful man who shot himself in the pilot after seeing a four-leaf clover. Since then, Katherine has occasionally walked down a hallway and once or twice lifted a photo and looked at it. She spent an entire episode figuring out what her dead husband ordered at a Chinese restaurant. And when she finally crossed paths with Will at a gala, what did they talk about? Vodka. At least we all agree on something! Look, it must have seemed like a great idea at the time to spin two distinct story lines out of the pilot and eventually weave them together. But the experiment was a failure: The season is halfway over and we don’t feel connected to either thread. Time to either bring her fully into the show or cut Miranda a nice severance check and send her back to London where she can concentrate on more important things, like falconry.
4. Lighten up!
There have been six episodes of Rubicon so far and only one reported instance of what earth-men call “a joke.” (It happened in episode four and it was about a separatist faction called M.I.L.F. We chuckled.) Again, we’re not saying that a show about the crushing paranoia of clandestine operations should break out the whoopie cushions — but a little lightness couldn’t hurt now and then. Watching sallow people sit in a conference room and debate killing someone half a world away shouldn’t be as punishing for us as it is for them. Sure, All the President’s Men was dark but it was also imbued with the thrill of the hunt. Will’s emotional spectrum runs from “wide-eyed and manic” to “decidedly dour.” Aren’t these people supposed to be into secrets? Why is everyone so depressed all the time! Even Tanya — the life of the party alcoholic — does all her drinking in private. Poor Donald Bloom, Kale’s old CIA gun-buddy (and former lover?) has taken to a doughy middle-age of hookers and carrying an umbrella on his arm on sunny days (which is either an homage to The French Connection or incredibly stupid and most likely both). What we wouldn’t do to meet someone who likes being a spy and is maybe just a little bit good at it!
5. Hurry up!
Finally, the elephant in the room, the broom hanging on the wall, the kale in the white bean salad: Rubicon is slow. Like, a Sumo wrestler on propofol slow. And not, as we initially had hoped, slow in a mature and confident way: A master storyteller taking his time doling out richly rewarding details at a complicated but ultimately rewarding pace. No, Rubicon is slow because nothing happens. Almost at all. One episode was about Will taking apart a motorcycle then giving it to his ex-brother-in-law who we’ve never seen again. Katherine Rhumor spends more time inside her fancy house than the worst agoraphobe on the planet. And if we never hear the words “George Beck” again, it’ll be too soon. This isn’t a frustrated Lost fan demanding “answers.” This is a fan of television demanding “story” or “something to care about.”
As we’ve said before, good shows need time to find their legs. But six episodes is an awful long time to put up with throat clearing. The most recent episode — filled with frustrated sex, paranoid chases through Chinatown and that infamous white bean salad — was a welcome step in the right direction. We say this as still-optimistic fans but say it we must: Rubicon is running out of time to quicken the pace.