American Odyssey Is Too Serious for Its Own Good (or Not Serious Enough)

Not a Thriller for Our Time. Photo: NBC

NBC’s new drama American Odyssey, about a female Army ranger (Anna Friel) who uncovers the mother of all military-industrial-financial conspiracies, wants to be A Thriller for Our Time. Even when it becomes too busy, silly, or opportunistic to take seriously, you give it points for ambition, because how can you not? At its worst, it’s dumb and pandering. At its best, it’s like peak Homeland, only louder and faster, and with the courage to go all the way with its more paranoid notions (as well as with Homeland’s ingrained xenophobia, alas — but we’ll get to that). 

Created by Peter Horton, Adam Armus, and Kay Foster, Odyssey is a globetrotting potboiler, one-stop shopping for torn-from-recent-headlines melodrama. If you became obsessed with a major American political topic during the last eight years, it’s probably in here: the drone strikes, state-sanctioned torture, black-ops treachery, and Blackwater arrogance of the War on Terror; the financial collapse, bailout, and one-percenter immunity of 2008; the mangled idealism and cracked skulls of Zuccotti Park; every frightening image of abusively sexist Arabic men that ever appeared on Fox News Channel, 24, or Homeland.  Stylistically, too, the series is a potluck. The intense violence, relentless (sometimes choppy) pace, and awkwardly written but breathlessly shouted exposition are pure Jack Bauer. There’s Traffic or Babel-like crosscutting between stories set in the United States and Mali, with plotlines visually color-coded for easy viewer orientation. (Where are we now? With the stockbrokers, the protestors, or Franz Fanon’s wretched of the earth? Oh, right. Blue = Wall Street.)

If you want a virgin viewing, you’d best skip to the next paragraph. Not that the details matter: Although American Odyssey chews through plot like a threshing machine, it’s ultimately more a dour, panicked vibe than a story. The tale begins in Mali, where Friel’s heroine, Odelle Ballard, is part of an elite Army Ranger unit that kills Al Qaeda’s current top dog. She finds a laptop containing evidence of financial ties to a shady U.S. corporation, and the group tries to get the info out into the world and narrowly escapes death in a drone strike that kills her colleagues and makes the U.S. military and the media assume she died in Mali, too. Meanwhile, in New York, the aforementioned shady company, SOC, is on the brink of a merger. One of its corporate lawyers, Peter Facinelli’s Peter Decker, becomes convinced that the firm is up to no good and starts investigating off the books, sparking a wave of mayhem and intimidation. There’s another plot strand about a lower Manhattan protest that’s ostensibly about the new G8 summit, but is built on the rubble of Occupy Wall Street. The group’s leader is an earnest sweetheart named Harrison Walters (Jake Robinson) who craves mainstream media attention for his cause. When a mentally ill protestor (Bob Offer) claims he knows the truth about the Mali drone strike, Harrison brushes him off at first, then realizes too late that he’s onto something. Odelle’s plight in Mali, the merger, the G8 summit, even a visit by the wannabe prime minster of Greece are all connected; how, we don’t yet know.

The pilot, directed by Jamie Payne (The Hour, The Bletchly Circle), couples the jumpy energy of a recent-vintage Hollywood military-action picture and the exhausted desperation of a '70s paranoid thriller. People get tailed, surveilled, arrested, and killed, seemingly due to bad luck, but probably because Somebody Doesn’t Want the Truth to Come Out. Entire scenes will unfold mainly from the point of view of its most imperiled character; that means that you often have no more insight into the severity of a threat than the character does, because you’re seeing things from deep down in a pit, or at the far end of an alley, or through a sliver of barely opened doorway. There’s an impressive physicality to the action; when silly plotting subtracts credibility, inventive location shooting (Manhattan for Manhattan; Morocco for Mali) replenishes it.

Although it’s spinning a web of hyperbolic melodrama, American Odyssey at least tries to stay rooted in plausibility. The screenwriters name names whenever possible (Bill Clinton, Blackwater, bin Laden, Occupy Wall Street, Twitter), and the military, legal, and political jargon is dense for a network series.

Unfortunately, the sheer number of coincidences derails the show’s attempts to seem real and relevant. Sometimes the camera pans from, say, Decker the lawyer to Walters the protester (who’s too naive to be trusted by so many hard-cases), and you’re probably supposed to think “small world,” or “everyone is connected,” but it’s all just way too forced. Even more unfortunate is the way that Odelle and her odd-couple traveling companion, a barely adolescent soldier named Aslam (Omar Ghazoui), take the viewer on a horror-movie tour of Mali that might as well be the Republic of Islamophobia.

Odelle is a tough, resourceful heroine — it doesn’t hurt that Friel’s voice sounds like Sigourney Weaver’s — but there’s a cheeseball exploitation-movie quality to the way that she endures every variation of a woman’s nightmare voyage through Arabia. After Odelle survives the drone strike and cuts her hair to pass as a man en route to Timbuktu, she’s imprisoned, leered at, screamed at, brutally beaten, and threatened with rape and stoning by a succession of keffiyeh-clad, wild-eyed, snaggle-toothed fanatics. This imagery represents a particular, very popular American worldview, granted — see Fox News Channel’s reduction of the former Ottoman Empire to, basically, Muslim Mad Max — but it’s an exhaustingly cartoonish one, and it makes the show’s already broad depiction of anti-capitalist protest and Wall Street corruption seem nuanced in comparison. Are the producers trying to make another Traffic or Babel, or a modern version of a silent-movie-era cliffhanger about a virtuous white woman imperiled by sinister ay-rabs? During desert scenes, American Odyssey feels like the latter posing as the former.

It’s ultimately hard to say if American Odyssey is too serious for its own good or not serious enough. Either way, you come away with the sense that it’s striving for an impact that it never achieves, and that would feel unearned regardless.