Three and a half stars
7 p.m. Sunday on AMC
AMC was a sacred channel to me at a very impressionable age. If AMC deemed it an "American Movie Classic," that was good enough for me.
It was where I could find Gloria Grahame noir movies, or gems like 1965's "Ski Party" (Frankie Avalon! Lesley Gore! James Brown!). You could leave the channel on all day and be a better person for it.
But around 2002, commercials started to seep into the programming, along with questionable selection such as "Rambo: First Blood Part II." No one was more heartbroken than me to discover just how broad their definition of a "classic" was.
I still have mixed feelings about the channel - I haven't yet forgiven them for the hours I lost on their bewildering remake of "The Prisoner" - but you can't deny that AMC is emerging as an influential tastemaker with "Breaking Bad" and "Mad Men." This is TV of film quality, and that's a compromise I can embrace.
Their new series, "Rubicon," is a good fit for the schedule. It stars James Badge Dale, who lost his innocence on HBO's miniseries "The Pacific." Here, he's Will Travers, who lost his wife and daughter on September 11th and hasn't gotten past it. Now he buries himself in his work at the American Policy Institute, a government think tank where he analyzes intelligence, gleaning data from the FBI, CIA, Homeland Security, the Treasury, and so on. We learn that he's something of a genius, as evidenced by his hair, which sometimes stands on end. Sample wisdom: He knows why bears don't have to pee when they're hibernating.
In the first episode, Will thinks he's stumbled on an odd pattern in the crossword puzzles of some of the nation's largest newspapers. (What luck that Will knows the Latin for "four-leaf clover"!) The crosswords seem to have triggered mysterious and tragic events, but Will's boss discourages him from investigating it further.
At the same time, a wealthy widow (Miranda Richardson) is trying to understand why her husband shot himself. She visits a townhouse she didn't know he owned, tries to pump his best friend (David Rasche) for information, bribes the nearby Chinese restaurant for records - and she's just getting started.
There are some great characterizations and attention to detail. If you stick with the series, you'll be treated to a lecture on the perfect briefcase by the droll Michael Cristopher that's worth the price of admission. And if you think your office banter is entertaining, try swapping in-jokes with the intelligence community. (It turns out that MILF also stands for the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.)
Arliss Howard is unflappable as a vaguely menacing superior. With his close-cropped light hair and dark clothes, he came across as a sort of miniature Max von Sydow.
AMC is calling "Rubicon" a thriller, but that's not really the right word. There's plenty of urgent violin music, but the pace is deliberate and slow. I watched four episodes without learning all that much,. I didn't get completely drawn in, either. Maybe I'm just wary because I've been burned before - my patience better be rewarded with a heck of a payoff this time.
One hopeful thought: The themes of paranoia, guilt, loneliness and mystery all brought to mind Gene Hackman in "The Conversation." That seems promising.
But I'm still concerned about that pesky payoff. Will the conspiracy be worthy of the buildup?
For instance, will we find out that there's a secret group of rich and powerful men who manipulate global events?
Because that would be a letdown. That's how I'd always assumed things were done - no great revelation there.
The crossword editors, though -- I hadn't suspected those guys. They're on my watch list now.