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Jack Ryan - Season 1 - Advance Preview

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I could be harsh on Jack Ryan. Today's era of Peak TV is producing a ridiculous amount of scripted series, but for all the resources that are being pumped into the industry, it's not really leading to a huge amount of great shows, just a lot of pretty good ones. There are dozens upon dozens of scripted dramas on TV right now, but will any of them one day be mentioned in the same breath as the greats that came to define the "Golden Age", an era that probably came to an end at around the time Mad Men left our screens? Those classic shows inspired so much of TV's current output, and yet almost nothing now can seem to come close to replicating their success.

And Amazon's Jack Ryan - the fifth major live-action depiction of the character - is yet another show to come along that is just pretty good. Despite the involvement of Carlton Cuse as co-showrunner, the presence of a genuine, newly-minted movie star in John Krasinski in the lead role, and a production budget so big it can reasonably be called insensible, Jack Ryan is not, in its first season (of which I've seen six episodes) the next great TV show. But why I'm going to choose to not be harsh on the show in this review is that it isn't really trying to be that. There's no misguided pretentiousness, no painful self-seriousness. Jack Ryan is primarily interested in being entertaining; everything else is secondary.

The show opens with Krasinski's Ryan, a CIA analyst who is thrust into the field when a new terrorist threat to the West emerges; that threat being Suleiman (Ali Suliman). Ryan is taken under the wing of his new boss James Greer (an excellent Wendell Pierce), a disgraced case officer who has been recently demoted. What follows is a season of constant international adventure and intrigue, the show having the money and freedom to shoot in all sorts of exotic locations.

There's something very TV-like about Jack Ryan, in a good way. As I mentioned above, the show is from Carlton Cuse (along with co-creator Graham Roland). Cuse is an old vet of the industry, and has run several terrific shows (most notably Lost), and he and the show's other writers bring a basic old-fashioned competence to TV storytelling that is missing from too many shows these days. The show hardly ever wastes a breath despite some episodes running close to 60 minutes, and it maintains a welcome episodic structure: not every episode wraps a story up, but each tends to build to a well-staged, exciting action sequence, and bring some vague sense of conclusion, while also propelling viewers forward into the next hour.

The show is not without some ambitions beyond telling a cool spy/action story. Greer soon emerges as a nuanced, layered character that provides Pierce with his best material in a few years, and there is an admirable and mostly effective attempt at developing both the character of Suliman and his wife Hani (Dina Shihabi). There perhaps isn't quite enough story to justify the time the show sometimes chooses to spend with Suliman in the present day (which the show seems to eventually realize), but when an episode comes along that is built upon flashbacks to his younger self in Paris with his brother, before they were both radicalized, the show is injected with a new energy. This episode and its flashbacks work well, making Suliman both more understandable and less reachable.

Every once in a while the show will attempt to make some commentary on the war on terror, with results that are more successful than you would expect. The pilot opens on two young Lebanese brothers dancing in their bedroom before their house is destroyed by a U.S air-raid, and a key supporting character who emerges in the season is Victor Polizzi (John Magaro), a drone pilot who is being destroyed by guilt over the innocent people he has killed. All of this isn't the show's focus, but it provides some welcome shading.

Now, just because a show doesn't aim to be the next The Wire doesn't mean it can't be great, and Jack Ryan is far from perfect. All the globe-trotting action eventually leaves Krasinski's titular character feeling like a passenger in his own show, and we never get a firm idea of who our protagonist really is. However, Krasinski is charismatic enough for this to not hurt the show too much. I'm also not a huge fan of how the show is filmed: for all its terrific locations, not often enough does the show take advantage of this visually, its directors (who include Morten Tyldum for the pilot and Daniel Sackheim) usually settling for the most workman-like way to shoot everything. This is the one area where the show's TV-like tendencies work against it.

There's also an uninspired and under-cooked romance between Jack and Dr. Cathy Muller (Abbie Cornish, in a thankless role), but this takes up so little screen time, and it's impact on the story and the viewer is pretty much non-existent, that it's hardly worth mentioning (and, in the interest of full disclosure, I forgot about it until I finished the previous paragraph).

But none of the above problems do too much to detract from one's enjoyment of the show, though they do hold it back from being the most effective version of itself. Overall, Jack Ryan is well worth a watch, one of Amazon's most successful attempts at a drama series yet, and provides a refreshing dosage of unpretentious and able TV storytelling in an era where such a thing is far too rare.

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