By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 31, 2010; C01
"Rubicon," AMC's morose new drama about a team of code crackers that works in a blandly clandestine Manhattan wonk outfit ("the American Policy Institute"), has a quiet and almost sublime way of laying out its intricate premise. It takes its chances against all of the other television espionage dramas that are too loud and explosive.
Instead of bombs, "Rubicon" has brooding. Instead of car chases and karate ballets executed in form-fitting leather, it has . . . crossword puzzles.
This is not entirely surprising. In a way, "Rubicon" fits nicely alongside AMC's two other deliberate forays into slow-cooked dramas that have a cinematic excellence to them: "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad."
Most engagingly, "Rubicon" has James Badge Dale (recently seen in HBO's "The Pacific" as Pfc. Robert Leckie), with the saddest blue eyes in the world, as Will Travers, one of the institute's top analysts. Dale's performance is as puzzling and delightfully deceptive as "Rubicon" itself, one of those rare times when a role and an actor find instant tonal sync.
Will works on a team of four disheveled nerds who spend their days analyzing the un-analyzable. In a conference room each morning they are handed a new stack of mysteries ("the intake" -- intercepted messages, encrypted data, photos of known assassins having coffee) that various federal intelligence branches need solved or illuminated.
It's weird work done by pale, unhappy people -- of whom Will is the glummest.
"He walks around every day looking like his favorite cat just died," remarks the team's newest hire.
"Try wife and child. Try 9/11," replies another colleague.
Aside from the untucked shirttails and hipster messenger bags, this is our first indication that "Rubicon" is set in the relative present, with all its attendant fixations on conspiracy, deceit, terror and notions of shadow governments of the Code Orange era.
But this is not a Jack Bauer world. It's been noted that "Rubicon's" vibe seems descended from those cerebral "Parallax"-y and "Condor"-esque thrillers of the 1970s. "Rubicon" also has the beige-and-gray, washed-out feel of those times; it smartly references the ways (economic, political, cultural) the past decade can frequently bear an eerie resemblance to the '70s of parking garages, concrete and dourness.
But enough about mood; what about the story? It's dense -- and intentionally so. If you miss the first couple of episodes, you may as well not bother.
Creator-writer Jason Horwitch (whose previous credits include the movie "Finding Graceland" and a TV movie about Evel Knievel, and not much else) has layered "Rubicon" with the sorts of clues and references -- possibly irrelevant, possibly not -- that potentially turn a fan into a geek. When Will's team members receive their "intake" assignments, they don't immediately rush to their PCs or whip out a smartphone. This show prefers stacks of manila folders that are rubber-banded together. It likes newspaper clippings, references to books (actual books), and clues frantically arrayed on a corkboard festooned with sticky notes. There are globes, chess boards, typewriters, mythological references and a Graham Greene novel.
In its first few episodes, "Rubicon" is almost refreshingly free of gizmos and the dreaded "whatever technology" that propel shows like "CSI" and "24" -- without feeling faux-academic, in the "Da Vinci Code" sense. (When Will's people want tech help, they must go to the darkened cubicle of a computer geek they call "Hal.") In fact, the whole thing begins with a mysterious billionaire committing suicide after noticing a four-leaf clover affixed to his morning newspaper. (His what?)
As his widow (Miranda Richardson, a welcome sight) begins a long journey of learning about her husband's many secrets, Will gets accidentally interested in an answer in the day's puzzle (the Latin word for four-leaf clover) and finds that the same clue is in every newspaper's crossword -- a coincidence he feels must be a conspiratorial message.
Bringing up the crossword thing to his boss in short order leads to: the boss's mysterious death, Will's promotion to team leader (where he now reports to a wickedly watchable Arliss Howard) and elaborate conspiracies that will no doubt lead to other conspiracies.
Which may exasperate, but not so far. Without feeling like it's leading us on, "Rubicon" is a tightly woven and urbanely acted tale for people who like to mull.
(two hours; Episodes 1 and 2)
begins at 8 p.m. Sunday on AMC.