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‘Rubicon’: Too slow? Or too NERDY?!

AMC’s Rubicon received a stellar welcome with its August arrival, which is pretty much the network’s norm these days. The show about a think-tank of government code-breakers, one of whom begins to investigate a larger conspiracy after his father-in-law (and boss) dies under mysterious circumstances, had critical acclaim and scored a ratings record for the network with its premiere. In subsequent weeks, the numbers have dropped off a bit but it’s still holding steady as Mad Men’s lead in; the one thing I keep noticing, however, is a periodic but persistent rumbling of complaint from TV geeks who are jumping ship because the show is, in their minds, just too damned slow. The usual comparisons to watching paint dry or observing strangers reading the newspaper for an hour followed. (Others have said that the series is so coy about its inner workings that they have a hard time even describing what it’s about to someone who doesn’t watch.) That got me to wondering – since I’m pretty much in dweeby lust with the show at this point, what am I seeing that they’re not?

Is it possible I’m reading too much into Rubicon’s – okay, I’ll grant you this much – ultra-deliberately paced mysteries and therefore generating excitement where none should be had?  Maybe.  But I doubt it. If anything,  the entire point of the show– as was the case for numerous 1970’s-era conspiracy thrillers like The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor, from which it clearly draws inspiration both structurally and thematically – is to hold the audience hostage to its secrets, along with the show’s protagonists, for as long as possible.  Correct? (Hell, last Sunday’s episode – the show’s tenth – marked the first time that the leads played by James Badge Dale and Miranda Richardson actually interacted together, other than a quick run-in at a cocktail party a few weeks back that was clearly intended to get our backs up and then leave us hanging.) And we’re not talking teasing-type secrets in a Lost fashion, where there are smoke monsters and polar bears running around to bring the awesome while we wait… we are talking pencil-pushing, government-bureaucracy-speed mysteries. And that’s where so many people seem to have a problem.

Now, I’m not criticizing anyone for whom Rubicon is too slow; we all have our own tastes, and if we all liked the same kinds of shows then there would be no room for debate and discussion and, frankly, that would be really freaky, like an old Twilight Zone episode or something. Nobody wants that.  I guess what I’m trying to figure out is where the dial stops for the many that lose interest, versus those of us who are hooked. I think part of it may lie in the fact that when nothing seems to be happening – either you’ve got two characters on a roof circling each other’s conversation without revealing anything, or a group of the API analysts sitting around a conference table ostensibly doing their jobs – in fact, there is shit-tons happening under the surface if you devote your undivided attention to what’s happening on screen.

So much of what goes on in Rubicon’s characters’ lives happens in the minute details, the ramblings about their home lives that don’t pertain to the show at all or the office politics that play across their faces.  (It helps that the entire cast is pretty goddamned amazing.) Meanwhile the erstwhile “action” of the show – kidnappings, bombings, murders of terrorist suspects that are being investigated by the gang at API – gets talked about constantly but it all happens off-screen. When Tanya and Miles were whisked away to foreign soil to oversee the interrogation of a terror suspect, they glimpsed some of “the shit” but never found out exactly where they were… and neither did we. AOL TV’s Maureen Ryan may have been on to something when she called the show “the anti-24”; if you try to imagine Jack Bauer sitting still for as long as this crew, he’d probably have a mental breakdown.

Still, I just can’t stop watching – even if doing so means going into complete lockdown and barricading myself in front of the TV for an hour to make sure I don’t miss anything. I can’t even impair my perception in the teeniest bit; I had a glass of wine before watching the show a couple of weeks back and did find my attention drifting. Heinous! Perhaps even more than any mythology-heavy genre show,  a show like Rubicon insists that you cannot miss a single moment – not only to keep track of the plot lines, but what might be happening between the plot lines. That’s pretty damned nerdy, no? Obsessing over the slightest little inflection in a line reading that might hit at intent is half the fun. I mean, is there a line delivered by Arliss Howard’s marvelously shifty Kale Ingram that doesn’t seem either loaded with double meaning or constructed purely to run interference?  (Well, maybe less so now that he’s feeling like a target, too.) Now that Dale’s Will Travers has finally hooked up with the pretty neighbor across the way (though he did it primarily to get out of his bugged apartment), we are supposed to doubt her sincerity in exactly the paranoid manner that Will is… right?

This is what we Rubicon addicts seem to feed on… the notion that even the most mundane of circumstances might be full of clues, and that the safest of harbors is really not so safe at all.  That suspense keeps us going even when the characters are chasing their tails and the underlying secrets are maddeningly opaque. And even when our characters are sitting around in a drab corporate basement in the middle of the night staring at video monitors for hours, if there’s the slightest whiff of danger around the corner, it’s worth investing in. (By the way, short of danger I’d settle for Miles scoring with the cute girl with the Triforce tattoo. +10 for think-tank nerds in love.)  But what say you, folks?… am I on the money, or do I have the patience of a saint?


More thinky-thoughts on fall series coming soon. (Fringe? Still amazeballs! Hawaii Five-0? Surprisingly good! The Event? Un-eventful FAIL!) In the meantime, an addendum to my first Nerdist blog, in which I ranted about BBC America filling airtime with Star Trek: The Next Generation and other thoroughly non-British shows: Well hot damn, it appears they’ve taken me up on one of my suggestions. Law & Order: UK starts airing October 3rd. Check it out! It’s quite good, and watching Lee Adama and Martha Jones put away baddies is great for the nerd soul. I shall now resume poking BBCA with a stick until they do something really stunning, like pick up QI…

Addendum #2: Congratulations to ‘adoyaradev1’ for being the only person to correctly identify Fox’s Lone Star as the first casualty of the fall TV season in our dead pool poll, by write-in comment vote. It just got the ax.

Image: ABC

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  1. Zach says:

    I think the part I like most about the show is how many contemplative looks come across the characters’ faces. The show allows their faces and body language to say so much beyond the dialogue. The incidental string arrangements are pretty good too, but I worry about them being overused sometimes.

  2. Jane says:

    I am totally, obsessively in love with Rubicon and while I understand the point that the plot is often “slow,” I don’t see how that’s a bad thing at all. It’s deliberate to the point of being engrossing, and unlike 24 (which I loathed), it is absolutely terrifying in its plausibility. There are no manic superhero-like men saving the world, just quiet guys pushing paper around, making me want to get extra locks for my doors. Everything is so lusciously gray and nondescript and fascinating despite (because of?) it. I don’t think I breathed during the October 2nd episode, even though I logically knew what had to happen.

    For my money, Kale Ingram is the best character on tv at the moment.

  3. Xtian says:

    I too love this show, and the pace never really bothered me because I’ve felt the whole time that it’s what’s “in-between” and not “said” that’s been fun to try and decipher. With that said I’ve shuddered at the thought of everyone else who dislikes it for that very reason and have anticipated it’s cancellation. Glad there are more like me out there willing to go along for the ride and see what happens to these great characters.

    I too am in love with Fringe but am saddened you feel The Event is an epic FAIL. I remember rolling my eyes at the thought of NBC trying to find it’s LOST when I first heard of the premise and watched all the trailers. But I have to say I’ve been intrigued thus far. More “secrets” were given to the audience in one episode of The Event than in an entire season of LOST. Some of the dialogue is pretty lame, but story line, I’m sold! Hope you give it another shot, definitely fills the void that LOST left me, and that’s saying a lot considering I feel like Darlton sucker punched me with that shite fianle, and pretty much all 6 seasons.

  4. Joe says:

    The thing I love most about the show is the fact that I’m keeping an eye out for small details as much as anybody on the show does. One such example is the random woman who comes up and whispers in Will’s ear mid-conversation during the FBI’s investigation of the leak. Seriously, what was that? Like many of you have pointed out, I really hope they’re not making it up as they go along because if this all turns out to be something cosmically bigger than a few old assassins controlling the government, my mind (and pants) will explode.
    My one gripe is that the first couple episodes set up some great ideas and concepts which have yet to come back into play, such as clues concerning the adherence to luck and superstition (13, rabbit’s foot, 4-leaf clover, the broom) and I keep waiting for all that to come back in a big way. I just hope I’m not setting myself up for disappointment of Lost-sized proportions.

  5. Liana S says:

    It’s slow? Then entire time I thought it was too fast.

  6. You know what they see, but you don’t know what they know.
    But you see when they figure something out.

    Plus, how awesome is it to have a nearly mute main character.
    Silent type….

  7. Maura says:

    I’m loving it and think that the slow pace works really well. Mainly because there is so much for the characters, especially Will, to think about. I love the slow, quiet scenes where Will is putting the pieces together. There isn’t much depiction on TV of people thinking, but this show does it really well.

  8. Shane says:

    @donna I think it is getting decent ratings so let’s keep our fingers crossed for it’s success

  9. Donna says:

    I love Rubicon. I watch it either On Demand or recorded as I do everything else. My big worry as I watch is that the show will be cancelled. It’s smart, it’s real (or so it appears) and so on. Not liking the match up with the girl across the way bc Will would have considered her a plant – so dumbed down a bit. But love it I still do. Think I have the last episode to watch, I mean savor.

  10. @Guanolad – You make a fantastic observation that I left out of the blog, but I should have noted it: The dialogue. It goes hand in hand with the measured pace of the show, but the virtual lack of any expository dialogue whatsoever is not only realistic but so refreshing. I mean, most shows (even the ones I love) rely on it from time to time to get around key plot points, but when shows shove a ton of exposition into the characters’ mouths it’s just lazy, and makes me both cringey and grumpy.

  11. Guanolad says:

    I find this show strangely compelling. Something about it works for me, but I can’t pin it down because its glacial pace made me hesitate.

    The characters seem so real. More real than any characters on any other show on television. There’s no arch dialogue or exaggerated performances, which is the kind of acting most people expect and demand in their TV shows. I like realism, and it’s a rare thing to see in movies and TV these days. Or ever.

    Plus, I just want to know what happens.

  12. Stephanie says:

    I love Rubicon so much. My brother and I watch it religiously and love seeing the cinematic details that sneak in. I don’t think of the show as slow, but more like a work in progress. We learn things as the analysts do, and that is compelling.

  13. Stuart says:

    Watching the team working is the entire point of the show for me, mostly because the notion of interconnecting a whole lot of small details from all over the place appeals to the more obsessively nerdy parts of my personality.

    The pacing and the mundane nature of the overall conspiracy are just gravy in terms of it only having a payoff for the obsessive types.

  14. Martin J says:

    I’m really enjoying the pacing.

    To me it is the pauses and the moments where the characters are reacting or pondering to information where it is strongest.

    If i wanted to watch something which had jump cuts and speed over tension building I would watch Spooks (MI-5) which has luckily started up on the BBC within the last week.

    I don’t want to settle for either/or cant i have both.

  15. Christine says:

    Somehow the fact the show moves so slow hasn’t bothered me. It only adds to the suspense. Now with Fringe, I was incredibly bored for the 1st half a season. I actually stopped watching b/c I couldn’t take it anymore. I knew they were building to something, but it was just too much to ask me drifting through everything else to get to what I knew would be “the good stuff”. Eventually I heard enough good things to tell me they had finally gotten to what I had been waiting for, so I picked it back up and now it’s one of my favorite shows.

  16. RICH says:

    Well I’m glad it’s not just me!

    It’s really funny that Nicole uses the word “saint” in the last sentence since that is another AMC showed I tried to like but couldn’t. Lucky for me I have fallen in love with teh Rubicon. It took a little while to get going but now I’m gripped in a way that I don’t think I’ve been with any other show (*not intensity, but HOW I am gripped). Most shows have cliffhanger elements (Lost…) and characters that you give a poop about, and Rubicon is similar but is even more beholden to the notion of secrecy, yet I don’t find myself the least bit upset they aren’t revealing answers, or sometimes, even the questions. I don’t care that I don’t know what the big, overarching rouse is either. Why? I HAVE NO IDEA! Maybe I just trust the characters I like so I trust all will be revealed? But I really don’t care, I just like to watch.

    I know I like the characters–that’s clear–but when I tried to explain the show to my wife I was at a total loss “I really like this show even though I have no idea it’s what’s going on and I couldn’t begin to explain it.”. The most simple answer is the characters. They are all compelling, especially Miles–you just want him to succeed! Find love! Find Kateb! Something. No matter what you’re not going to like a show or movie if you don’t care about the characters. Beyond that I haven’t a clue what keeps me coming back.

    Oh, the titles are quite nice, maybe that’s it.

  17. @Pete – I’ve been musing on the “slow”-ness angle for a couple of weeks and it hasn’t ruined it for me yet. Courage!

    @eloj – The drabness of the cinematography much of the time is deliberate, I think, also evoking 70’s thrillers. But then there are shots that are kind of breathtaking. (See: Will & Katherine meet on park bench with Manhattan Bridge looming behind them like a weird inanimate eavesdropper. I loved that shot.)

    @Shift – That’s one of the best backhanded compliments I’ve ever heard. (Then again I find Bamber so goddamned attractive that he could speak with an exaggerated Fu Manchu accent for no good reason and I probably wouldn’t care.)

  18. Shane says:

    I love the show and I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with your post.

  19. Pete says:

    I never thought about it as slow before. I hope you haven’t ruined it for me now! Like when South Park exposed the Family Guy formula …

    I do agree that it does require you to watch closely. Entourage, I can watch that while doing three other things, and still keep up. But with Rubicon I do have to pick a time to watch when I’m not doing anything else that’s going to have me looking away from the screen or distracting my attention. Close the laptop, turn out the lights, don’t pick up the blackberry….

  20. Shift says:

    I had trouble watching L&O:UK. After BSG, Jamie Bamber is just so American to me that I can’t handle his accent – it kicks me right out of the story.

  21. eloj says:

    I like the show, but it is very slow.

    I can take slow if it’s deliberate and purposeful, but if it turns out after a season or two that they’re just making things up as they go, in all likelihood, I’ll feel cheated.

    I just wish the cinematography was a bit more interesting at time, would probably balance out the slowness of scenes if at least you had some interesting shots to ponder.

  22. Chris Hardwick says:

    I’ve been waiting until the season ends so I can watch it all at once.

  23. aquietamerican says:

    I’m also in lust with the show, but I’m not sure it’s the nerd factor that is keeping us interested while others find it painfully boring.

    Watching the premier, it was obvious that it was different than anything else on TV, but still eerily familiar. I couldn’t put my finger on it until I read the description of the show on iTunes:

    “inspired by the suspenseful, high-stakes political whodunits of the 1970s…”

    Not only did the producers create a show “inspired” by 1970s cinema and television, they chose to tell the story and shoot the episodes using the same pacing and techniques of that era of television. No jump cuts, no ping-pong dialogue, no unending action sequences, no thumping baselines and soaring music to push the action forward. It’s a bold move, given that we’ve all become so used to the pacing of shows like 24, the West Wing, etc., and it explains why so many people find it boring.

    Yet, it’s definitely one of the reasons I LOVE IT.