THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Television Review

‘Rubicon’ offers riddles, but few answers

From left: Jessica Collins, James Badge Dale, and Arliss Howard in AMC’s mysterious “Rubicon.’’ From left: Jessica Collins, James Badge Dale, and Arliss Howard in AMC’s mysterious “Rubicon.’’ (AMC via AP)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / July 30, 2010

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Are you comfortable not knowing? “Rubicon,’’ AMC’s transfixing new suspense drama, poses that question in a few provocative ways — as a question about the American government, as a question about personal relationships, and as an aesthetic TV-viewing question. How long can you sit with a riddle?

Modeled after 1970s conspiracy thrillers such as “The Parallax View’’ and “The Conversation,’’ “Rubicon’’ is a mystery inside an enigma — and proud of it. It is all about the withholding of explosive information both from the characters, most of whom work at a federal think tank called the American Policy Institute, and from us as we watch. The show, which has a two-hour premiere on Sunday at 8 p.m., has an almost passive-aggressive tone as it dangles then pulls back so many vague clues and cryptic activities. If you enjoy slowly piecing together a puzzle without having first seen the final image, “Rubicon’’ is right up your alley; if not, the brainteasing will likely unnerve you.

The elaborate plot, which will stretch across the 13-episode season in the manner of “Damages,’’ focuses on mid-level API analyst Will Travers (James Badge Dale), as he and his fellow intelligence workers scrutinize top-secret data for patterns that could indicate a coming terrorist attack or assassination attempt. They report their findings to Homeland Security and the military (not, coincidentally, unlike the many expensive post-9/11 agencies described recently in a Washington Post series). But Will is starting to wonder if his New York-based agency is actually linked to something hidden, maybe a secret group with even more power than our elected officials. Is there a corrupt shadow government leading the country, about to create a weapons-of-mass-destruction-type mistake?

The notion of an evil government conspiracy sounds simple and familiar, but “Rubicon’’ juices it up with entertaining code-breaking sequences and oddball characters at the API, as well as a kind of generalized atmosphere of paranoia that has defined so much post-9/11 drama. The series is headed up by Henry Bromell, whose top-notch credentials include “Homicide’’ and “Brotherhood,’’ and he keeps the tone coolly unemotional but as addictive as a Rubik’s Cube. Indeed, the look of the show recalls a colorless Rubik’s Cube, as the drab API offices are a grid of boxy rooms united by a hard-to-understand floor plan. The show is a game of sorts, like the crossword puzzles and chessboard used by some of the characters.

It helps “Rubicon,’’ too, that Dale is the perfect lead, embodying the deliberate pace of the show in his demeanor. Dale, who was equally compelling, although more cynical, in “The Pacific,’’ has a rounded face with angular features that betrays a lot with a very little. You can see behind his mask of normalcy that he is profoundly shut down, a man stuck on the portal of grief over past losses. When we first meet him, he’s so lost in a fog of distraction that he is unaware it’s his birthday. One of his colleagues, Maggie (Jessica Collins), is clearly smitten with him, but she knows he is a fragile man and she is painfully tentative around him.

All of Will’s brilliant co-workers intuitively understand him, since each of them is clearly a member of the walking wounded. Miles (Dallas Roberts) is neurotic and pent-up, Tanya (Lauren Hodges) appears to have an addiction problem, and Grant (Christopher Evan Welch) is filled with toxic jealousy. One of the themes of “Rubicon’’ is how corrosive secrecy can be, and the API workers know that problem intimately, since they cannot tell outsiders what they do for a living. They lead lives that require them to lie to their loved ones, to do world-changing work without home support. They live with a barrier between them and their families.

Miranda Richardson also figures into the series, as a new widow who discovers that her husband was leading a double life. “Rubicon’’ doesn’t make her connection to the story explicit, as she investigates her husband’s hidden activities. Four episodes in, we still don’t quite know if she will ever cross paths with the API or the group that Will is looking into. She is just another person in “Rubicon’’ who is torn apart by secrets.

Ultimately, “Rubicon’’ will probably tie Richardson to the overall arc, but first the show is going to befuddle us with more murky secrets and lies. That’s just how it rolls.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com.

RUBICON

Starring: James Badge Dale, Dallas Roberts, Miranda Richardson, Arliss Howard, Christopher Evan Welch, Lizzie Miller, Michael Cristofer, Lauren Hodges

On: AMC

Time: Sunday, 8-10 p.m.