“Gone in the Teeth”
June 13th, 2010
AMC has officially dubbed their airing of Rubicon’s pilot a month and a half ahead of its premiere as a “sneak preview,” but I think a “teaser trailer” may be a more accurate description of the episode in question. A good teaser trailer shows you atmospheric scenes which give you a sense of the mood a particular movie or television series is going for, but really doesn’t tell you much about the plot in question: for example, HBO’s teaser trailer for Game of Thrones, the much-anticipated adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, shows a few key images and establishes the series’ tagline.
Considering this, it’s fair to say that my use of the designation for “Gone in the Teeth” is symptomatic of my frustration with the enigmatic lack of clarity which pervades this series. If a show’s pilot is supposed to be a teaser trailer, an aesthetic exercise designed to build hype, then I would consider this to be moderately successful: there was absolutely nothing here which would keep me from tuning into the series in August. However, a pilot needs to be something more than a teaser trailer, and the series’ shortcuts in establishing both its central character and its central conspiracy show a lack of elegance which does little to convince me that this belongs in the same breath as AMC’s other original series.
When AMC announced its remake of The Prisoner, there was some pretty substantial hype surrounding the project: Jim Caviezel and Ian McKellen are not small-time actors, and the property has enough clout in critical circles to make it an anticipated event. However, once AMC realized that the series was a creative failure too unorganized to pay off its overarching narrative, the miniseries was buried: aired over three nights in the fall with little promotion, the series was never given a chance to become part of AMC’s growing brand identity, and an Emmy nomination for Ian McKellen (which would be unfortunate, considering his work was perfunctory at best) may be the series’ only legacy.
I don’t want to suggest that Rubicon is as much of a failure as The Prisoner was, but I can’t help but feel that in Rubicon AMC is doing the exact opposite: rather than burying something which hasn’t come together quite as they had anticipated (or, since I’m not inside their head, not as I had personally hoped), they’re instead choosing to hype it as much as possible, including this glimpse of the series’ pilot. It’s not a bad strategy: people are talking about the show, and those who may not have had the show on their radar will be able to watch it on Hulu, or tune in on August 1st, potentially leading to the series becoming a hit. I don’t fault AMC for that decision, or their decision to run with the show: while I have some issues with the pilot, I see the buzz words that AMC is focusing on in its marketing and which would make them excited to have this show on their lineup.
The problem is that those buzzwords, in particular “conspiracy,” are not nearly as simple as the show makes them out to be. There is never any doubt that James Badge Dale’s Will Travers is caught up in a conspiracy, but that conspiracy is vague to the point of having absolutely no real impact. It’s bad enough that Will is a thinly drawn character with a lazy September 11th connection where actual character development should be, but the sense of danger within the conspiracy is completely absent. I think Jason Horwitch believes that conspiracy actually means an opaque narrative, which is a very simplistic reading of that particular plot structure: there’s nothing wrong with doing a conspiracy storyline, or leaving the characters and the audience in the dark in regards to the plot, but if that’s the case you need to do a much better job of emphasizing the emotional consequences of the conspiracy. We see Miranda Richardson’s husband kill himself, and we see David die in a suspicious train crash, but we completely abandon Richardson’s character, and David’s funeral wraps up so quickly that it seems as if Will sleepwalked through his death as he was sleepwalking through life before. That we didn’t even meet David’s wife for more than a few seconds demonstrates that the series isn’t so much interested in the human consequences of the tragedy than it is the ominous threat of the vague conspiracy overtaking Will’s life.
The show is putting the cart before the horse, showing us something big and amorphous before we have any context with which to analyze it. I still don’t entirely know what the American Policy Institute is, or what Will’s role is: he seems a codebreaker in some moments, but in others he seems to be writing more standard policy issues. That lack of context would perhaps be considered “slow” by some test audiences who want more of the conspiracy, but in order for that plot to make any sense we need to know why this organization would be targeted, something that still doesn’t make any sense to me. And while I think Horwitch would like to conflate the terms, there is a difference between confusion and curiosity, and the former does not necessarily inspire the latter: in this case, my interest in television drama and my role as a critic allow the latter to emerge, but it ultimately has more to do with the cast (I enjoyed Dale’s work in The Pacific, and this role plays to some of the same sort of quiet moments of reflection we saw in that role) than the characters, the narrative structure more than the plot.
Rubicon is AMC’s answer to Damages and 24, if we’re drawing comparatives: while Mad Men and Breaking Bad are almost intoxicatingly focused on character over plot, Rubicon is conversely imbalanced, much as Damages and 24 often felt like their conspiracies and overarching storylines were taking over from the characters. However, those shows used that tension to their advantage, focusing the conspiracies on particular characters (Ellen on Damages, Jack on 24) so that their fates were tragically wrapped up in the events unfolding. With Rubicon, there isn’t that connection to the characters, and whatever tension could potentially resist in the series remains theoretical. It isn’t entirely absent: there are visual scenes (like Will coming out of his office and trying to get through the crowd of pedestrians) that capture his isolation quite nicely, so it’s not as if the show doesn’t know how to create moments which create an impact on the audience. However, this episode was so focused on establishing that a conspiracy exists that they seemed to forget to connect that conspiracy to anything in particular: it’s like we got a teaser trailer of the series’ plot, showing us what it might look like without really bothering to offer any further context. And while a teaser trailer is capable of selling mood and getting the audience interested in the series, applying the same principles to a plot-heavy drama series in its first episode is woefully ill-advised.
I’ll be watching in August, but rather than getting me more excited to see what follows I’ve already placed the series into a separate category from the series AMC wants me to compare it to; with a teaser trailer, I’d say I was judging it too quickly, but if this is the pilot they wanted to show me I think I’m comfortable making that judgment at this stage in the game.
- I’m fascinated that they abandoned Miranda Richardson’s character: I understand that they want to establish the series’ protagonist, but the linearity of Will’s story made the passage of time unrealistically fast. The jump from David’s death to David’s funeral is jarring rather than momentum-building – perhaps it’s the result of the edits made from an earlier version of the pilot (evident in some quick and dirty ADR work and reports from industry folk who saw the earlier version), but it sacrificed logic for the sake of expediency.
- I very much dislike that the series’ technique for making Will seem extremely smart is to have him solve problems that we don’t understand: forget the fact that we were given absolutely no information about them, he just looked at a board and listed off a bunch of random facts about cities which only smart people know. Plus, dude knows latin. (I sound really snarky here, but I actually don’t mind Will as a character so much as I mind the show’s carefully designed sequences to establish Will as a character).
- Are we to believe that Jessica Collins’ character has been flirting with Will for an extended period of time and Will never realized that she had a daughter? Again, I don’t dislike the idea of the character having a daughter about the age of Will’s daughter who passed away, but I hate that the series went for “sudden reveal” over “subtle reveal” when making the parallel. We don’t need to be shocked by something to understand why it would be uncomfortable, and the daughter could have been the reason why Will has stayed away from her rather than the reason he feels uncomfortable invading her space in his paranoid state.
- My one major request: James Badge Dale needs a haircut.