I don’t know why, but I think about the relationship between co-showrunners Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse on Lost all the time. I like to believe that when J.J. Abrams handed the reins over, he hired a creative visionary with no real experience running a television show in Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse to handle the administrative functions, ensure that the folks in the writers’ room got along and were well equipped with snacks and that the show could produce 20 episodes a year on time and under budget. I like to think of Carlton Cuse as a workmanlike manager, a conduit between the creative side of a TV show and the financial side, a guy who can speak to the suits, less interested in selling a vision and more interested in selling laundry detergent, at hitting the bullseye in the middle of a demographic Venn diagram.
What I have seen of Cuse’s work since Lost (Colony, Bates Motel, The Strain, and The Returned) has done nothing but reinforce what I believe about Cuse. He knows all the ingredients it takes to make a successful show, but he has no idea how to mix and blend them together. Amazon’s Jack Ryan is no exception: It’s a creatively inert, workmanlike product that takes a few great ingredients (John Krasinski, Wendell Pierce, a well-known property) and mixes them up and sticks them into the oven only to realize that the bread never rises.
Cuse forgot the yeast that a guy like Damon Lindelof could provide, and the result could not be more middle of the road and bland. Jack Ryan is Showtime’s Homeland after it’s been put through a CBS procedural filter, a by-the-numbers television thriller that is smart enough to cast John Krasinski but not smart enough to take advantage of his talents (Shadow Recruit was bad, but at least Chris Pine made for an excellent Jack Ryan). Krasinski’s personality — like that of the series — is muted, rounded off at the edges and spit back out as a tasteless paste. Aside from a few F-bombs and a bare breast here and there, there’s absolutely nothing separating Jack Ryan from something we might see on network television.
It is an absolute waste.
The storyline — an eight-episode arc broken down into easily digestible episode chunks —- turns its focus to the Middle East (instead of Cold War Russia, because this Jack Ryan storyline manages to be both ahead of the Tom Clancy but woefully behind the times) and a Lebanese jihadist named Suleiman (Ali Suliman), who is kind of Bin Laden crossed with Brody from Homeland: A terrorist with a legitimate ax to grind against the United States. To the show’s credit, it at least tries to flesh out Suleiman’s misguided motives while using his wife (Dina Shihabi) and kids to both humanize and undercut him. His family understands his anger but doesn’t agree with how he acts on it.
On the other side is our analyst, Jack Ryan, and his rogue section chief, James Greer, played by Wendell Pierce, who is really the only actor who rises above the material (just as he does every week on Suits, because there isn’t a script in existence that can constrain Pierce’s personality), while Timothy Hutton plays the boss who predictably can’t see the forest for the trees.
Suleiman’s plot is not particularly complicated; there’s just a lot of steps involved (the better to drag a movie-length story into an eight-hour TV series), and it involves killing a lot of people in different places in order to strategically kill the people with whom he has an ax to grind. Jack Ryan, the analyst, basically combats the terrorist plot by striking upon an epiphany once an episode and then shooting his way to a solution while remaining minimally wry and self-deprecating. Krasinski was hired for the gig, in part, based on his performance in Michael Bay’s 13 Hours, but while Krasinski and his beard managed to cut through that film’s jingoism, he’s more a vessel than anything else here, and his love interest (Abbie Cornish) is more plot contrivance than character.
That’s not to say that Jack Ryan in unwatchable, just as episodes of NCIS probably have their place, too. It’s passive TV, background noise, something to watch while you nap, but it’s never more than that. It’s an efficiently managed cut-and-paste job with a shiny package, or exactly what we’ve come to expect from Carlton Cuse.
Header Image Source: Amazon Studios