tablet mg

Home > Entertainment, Film / TV, Review / Recap, Reviews, Trailers > Crossing the Rubicon: Why I think I found a new favorite show

Crossing the Rubicon: Why I think I found a new favorite show

July 31st, 2010

Rubicon premieres this Sunday night, August 1st.

From One Pawn To Another.

In television, a viewer might often feel a pawn, not being handed anything by a fellow pawn, but rather shifted from one board to the next. Never long to last in the fight, as the milieu of a series loses its shine and the successive attempts at new shows turn into just another run of short-lived games. Rarely does a pawn cross the board and become the queen, engrossed with and empowered by the board itself.

With a few shows I have felt myself as substantively more than a pawn in the game of television programming; in those handful of shows I have lastingly and fully been engrossed. I can really check them off with the fingers of one hand:

  • The West Wing” for its political acumen. A show that reminded us both of what we most wanted in our leaders and the forces which prevent that ideal from being manifested.
  • Battlestar Galactica” for its social commentary. In an era when America was redefining itself both at home and on the world stage, no television program so boldly captured our internalized national struggles.
  • LOST” for its Joycean depth. Bad Robot’s ambitious efforts to challenge viewers made expecting more of one’s viewers a reality and opened the door to the difficult-to-navigate world of what might aptly be termed televised literature.
  • The Wire” for its simple poetry. It is, after all, this epic, five-part poem about the decline of the American empire that gave us the inspired scene in which D’Angelo explains chess to Bodie and Wallace.

There have been other great shows. “Mad Men” gave us attention to detail and historical fiction as a commercial winner. “The Shield” offers a level of grittiness that is hard to turn from. But with most television, it’s as D’Angelo explained to Bodie, “The pawns, man, in the game, they get capped quick. They be out of the game early.” In most television, it’s easy to just sit back and play dumb. Only in the best shows are the pawns challenged to be “some smart ass pawns.” It’s those shows that challenge the viewer that interest me most. In “Rubicon”, I hope we have one such show.

Click through for more.

“The Wire” pawn bit may not be the best analogy because, quite simply, it operates on two levels. The dumb pawn enjoys the short wavelength of the quick game. In, out, serialized and without any real intellectual investment. In a complex, untimed master’s game, the mindless pawn is lost, not aware of what’s going on four moves out and not really appreciating its role. But in that master’s game, a smart ass pawn can be very much a part of the action and aware of the subtleties of its surroundings.

I do think that it was “LOST”, above all else, that challenged viewers. Yes, “The West Wing” confronted its viewers with complex questions of political ideology early in its run, but by later years it was merely proselytizing and educating viewers to think from a certain perspective. “Rubicon” is unlikely to make us think that deeply about ourselves, asking fewer philosophical questions than “LOST” and not asking us to look within as much as “The West Wing”, “Battlestar Galactica” or “The Wire”, but I don’t doubt that it will be an onion, with layers waiting to be peeled back.

The opening credits roll with a combination of the complexity of John Nash's head in "A Beautiful Mind" and the elegance of AMC's opening credits for "Mad Men".

After allowing it to sit on my DVR for a few months, I finally got around to watching the pilot this week in advance of the true series premiere. I was more than pleasantly surprised. The pilot begins with an enigmatic game of hide and seek – a queue to readers that this is not a show meant to be spoon fed. After a quick flash of and query as to the meaning of the four-leafed clover, followed by a suicide that lacks context whatsoever, we are treated to one of the more elegant TV opening credits in recent memory. And then off to the races.

We meet Will Travers, a character with whom I sadly relate too much. I may not be quite the introvert or have quite the intellect that Travers is or does, but I relate to the type of individual who sees information as something to be consumed broadly and applied when possible. The information sought is multi-lingual, inter-disciplinary and without focus. We see Travers as at least bilingual (a classical education including Latin, for certain); as studying literature, cryptology, economics, history and science (including the fringes, as hinted by the string theory book he shelves on entering his office); and as trying to piece together that information in a complex and sometimes indiscernible world.

This obfuscated world is, for Travers, through the prism of the Manhattan-based American Policy Institute, a think tank that the pilot reveals (or at least implies) to be governmental, but quite separated as a cryptology and intelligence offshoot. He is handed assignments to be reviewed and patterns to be found, in each case utilizing his broad-based human capital and his cognitive biases to identify patterns and try to link them to something meaningful.

James Badge Dale is excellent as a choice for Travers, but Arliss Howard's take as Kale Ingram reminds a bit of Michael Emerson's star turn as Benjamin Linus on "LOST".

For the viewer, or at least me, the Pilot was the first clue or two in a master question set. represented by the crossword puzzle. Travers is handed one in his first scene and he quickly identifies a 19-letter anchor clue (the lucky larva eats a four leaf clover – in Latin, the marsilea quadrifolia). From that base clue, he identifies patterns in the surrounding clues. For the viewer, each episode has the potential to represent a clue and a potential answer to be pieced in, revealing the entire crossword board eventually.

Similarly, the viewer might see these first baby steps as gamesmanship in what one hopes will be a master’s game of chess. The first steps are not always readily apparent. It’s not always easy to identify a lack of audacity in a Réti Opening or the ambition of the Latvian Gambit. And it’s not necessarily possible to separate either from a random, unplanned first move.

With “Rubicon” I might just be displaying my own cognitive biases, identifying patterns that resemble that which I want to see, in places where they might not exist at all. But with “LOST”, “Battlestar Galactica” and “The Wire” all gone in the last year, I yearn for a replacement… a show on which to latch and through which to explore and learn – maybe not about myself or society, but certainly about something. I can only hope that “Rubicon” becomes more of a “Mad Men” style moving plot, and less of the “Fringe”-style serialized conspiracy drama.

Until proven that it is not, I intend to follow my Quick Hits pattern, as I did with “LOST”, dropping my thoughts on an episode just after airing. I’ll handle the Pilot and Episode 2 on Monday and Tuesday. As for now, let’s just say that I’m giving Rubicon a tentative, big thumbs up.

Comments are closed.