Monday, August 27, 2018

TV REVIEW: Amazon's 'Jack Ryan'

Amazon will premiere its new original drama series Jack Ryan on Friday, August 31. The drama stars John Krasinski, Wendell Pierce, Abbie Cornish, Ali Suliman and Dina Shihabi.

Read on for my thoughts on the new espionage thriller after screening its first six episodes.

John Krasinski is the fifth actor to portray the literary character Jack Ryan from Tom Clancy's spy novels - following in the footsteps of Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, Ben Affleck and Chris Pine. The new drama comes after it's already been a landmark year for Krasinski following the breakout success of the film A Quiet Place which he wrote, directed and starred in opposite his real-life wife Emily Blunt. And now, he is hoping to keep that momentum going. It's the kind of momentum that Amazon is strongly encouraging as well. The streaming service has confidently renewed the show for a second season - which is already in production too. It is banking on Jack Ryan being a breakout success as it issues in a new era of its programming strategy. After watching six of the eight episodes of the first season, I can confidently say that Jack Ryan is a solid and slick espionage thriller. Of course, there is a sense of familiarity to it as well. There is a reason why this property has been mined several times with several top actors sliding into the title role. It's the story of an everyman having to save the world after discovering some vast conspiracy that threatens them all. When Clancy wrote the novels, they were set during the Cold War and told a compelling story about that time for America. The series isn't an adaptation of any specific Clancy novel where Jack Ryan appears though. Instead, it is mostly inspired by the spirit of the character and implementing him into a new global conflict that has parallels to real-life. Sure, that's a genre that has already been mined fairly well over the years. In this particular genre, 24 and Homeland are the standards for television. Jack Ryan doesn't come close to replicating their success. At times, it feels like it's just copying the same twists that previously occurred there. And yet, it looks amazing. That means the show is able to sail through to being compelling television because of the production values and the high-caliber acting from its cast.

At the start of the season, Krasinski's Jack Ryan is just a low-level analyst in the CIA. It's amusing because the show is already putting the character in a cubicle just like Krasinski did for nine seasons on The Office. That is a familiar area for viewers to see him in. And yet, there is more to this character as well. It's not just a retread of Krasinski's most famous role. Instead, it is paired nicely with a former military background that makes it believable when he suddenly finds himself traveling the globe hunting down a terrorist group in the hopes of preventing a massive attack. Audiences have seen Krasinski in that heroic role as well thanks to films like 13 Hours and A Quiet Place. As such, Jack Ryan is the latest extension of his acting abilities. At times, Jack Ryan can read as a blank slate. He's an idealistic analyst in the agency who hopes that he can do some good within the organization to change it from its problematic past. He believes that there is a way the government can function without having to compromise with horrifying people just in order to get results around the world. He may be naive in that way. And yet, he's the character who is able to understand the information that comes to him about the case and analyze it better than anyone else in the agency. Sure, the show is also forcing a traumatic backstory onto Jack as he is unsure of his abilities in the field. He is capable of handling a weapon. But he believes it's much better and smarter to be aware of the cost of one's actions instead of just trying to disassociate from them. He doesn't want to compartmentalize the parts of his life. Of course, it shouldn't be surprising when that starts happening though especially as new opportunities become available to him in this job.

The main story of the first season sees Jack Ryan hurting down a Syrian terrorist named Suleiman (Ali Suliman). And yes, the show struggles to do more with its Muslim characters in the hopes of avoiding some bad and awful stereotypes. 24 ran into this problem where brown people were only ever painted as terrorists or other one-note villains. The season is putting in the work to ensure that the audience understands Suleiman and what motivates him. It needed to be more than the typical "death to the West" cliche. As such, the show digs deeper in order to understand this hatred. It still hits the familiar plot beats as well. The show continues to suggest that Suleiman is the next coming of Osama bin Laden. It makes that comparison frequently in the first few episodes. And yet, it's also doing just enough to diversify the Islamic community. It is showing the different ways of life in the Middle East and the opportunities given to people there. But it also highlights the Muslim community across Europe and whether those individuals can ever feel like they truly belong despite more opportunities being afforded to them there. And then, there is a story with Jack's new boss, James Greer (Wendell Pierce), who is a lapsed convert to Islam because of a marriage that fell apart. He has a distinct opinion on the actions taken in every angle of this case. He is a disgruntled former chief of station who has been demoted because of a scandal. He still finds himself propelled forward because of this hunt for Suleiman. That affords a lot of rich tension between him and Jack as they have different ways of doing things when it comes to this work. They clash but their bond forms the backbone of the series as well.

However, the show struggles giving its female characters something meaningful to do. Abbie Cornish is essentially billed as the female lead of the show. And yet, she is mostly saddled to a romance subplot with Krasinski that is so forced, rushed and tangential. Her character, Dr. Cathy Muller, is a top epidemiologist. Her work also takes her all around the world trying to save the planet from disaster. As such, there is every expectation that her expertise will eventually be useful to the main narrative. However, it's only in the sixth episode where that starts becoming apparent with no rush to actually get there quickly. So most of the time, she's just off in her own random story not having much influence on the rest of the show whatsoever. Meanwhile, Suleiman's wife, Hanin (Dina Shihabi), is important to the main story throughout these opening episodes of the season. She is struggling with the change in tactics her husband is willing to use in order to advance his agenda. She sees him as becoming too extreme and worries he is no longer a good influence on their three children. As such, she has to wonder if she should take action and speak up or do nothing in the hopes that her resolve will be rewarded either through her husband failing or coming to his senses. It's a very carefully calibrated story because it could be so annoying to spend a lot of time with Hanin away from everyone else in the ensemble. And yet, the show manages to find the right balance to ensure that her concerns are valid and influential in the story while still being unexpected as well. It just means she's not really an independent focus throughout the show either though.

Again, the most impressive aspect of Jack Ryan is its production design. Almost every single episode has at least one action sequence that is absolutely stunning to look at. Pilot director Morten Tyldum sets a strong template for the series that is also upheld by subsequent directors Daniel Sackheim and Patricia Riggen. Meanwhile, the show never really drags in an agonizing way. Showrunners Carlton Cuse and Graham Roland know the precise amount of time that should be spent on any given character or location. It allows just enough time to marvel at the scenery of Morocco and France. But it also knows when it needs to move on and actually do some meaningful character development. Jack Ryan doesn't really offer anything new in this particular genre. It's still telling a story that has been told before in both television and film. It's just a very solid and slick execution of the format. Sometimes, that's all it takes in order to craft a compelling and visually satisfying show. It's a solid start for a show that could be huge for Amazon. The executives there have been placing their bets. No one will regret tuning in for this eight episode season. It just may take until the second season for more originality to come in and help distinguish what Jack Ryan does better than anyone else in this genre.