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Review: Starz' 'The Rook' Is a Fantasy Spy Thriller That Is Neither Fantastical Nor Thrilling

By Dustin Rowles | TV | July 1, 2019 |

By Dustin Rowles | TV | July 1, 2019 |


I have not yet read Daniel O’Malley’s 2012 fantasy-spy novel The Rook, but it is my understanding that the book itself was fun and whimsical with a grotesque sense of humor. There’s also a fascinating premise at play, but best I can tell, based on the pilot episode of Starz’ adaptation of the novel, the miniseries has translated the premise to the screen without bringing any of the humor or whimsy.

The opening episode is something of a drag, and given how much is going on in the pilot, it really shouldn’t be. It opens with a woman (Emma Greenwell) waking up in the blood-drenched rain surrounded by dead bodies. She has no memory of who she is, how she got there, or why she’s surrounded by soggy corpses. However, she soon finds a letter from herself, written before the events, offering her two choices: Change her identity and start a new life, or go back to her dangerous existing life and try to solve the mystery that led to her waking up beneath the Millennium Bridge in London surrounded by dead people.

Obviously, she chooses the latter, otherwise, it wouldn’t be much of a show. By the end of the pilot, she learns that her name is Myfanwy and she belongs to a British secret society of some sort called the Checquy. In an iPad she left to herself, she also learns about her co-workers, Linda Farrier (Joely Richardson), Conrad Grantchester (Adrian Lester), and some others, including Eliza Gestalt, who is played by Catherine Steadman, the actress and author of one of my favorite thrillers last year, Something in the Water, which is the real reason I gave The Rook a look-see. Oh, and also, Myfanwy learns she has unexplained secret powers, which appears at this early stage to be the ability to electrically zap people. Fun! (Not really) It’s a lot, but you can also add Olivia Munn to the mix as an American counterpart agent who is along to help solve the murders. It probably says a lot about The Rook that, so far, the only character with any energy whatsoever is Olivia Munn, so obviously the bar is not high.

The premise is basically Bourne with superpowers crossed with, I dunno, a brain-dead, joyless The Kingsman? The problem, unfortunately, is that in trying to set up the premise, creators Al Blyth and Sam Holcroft completely sap the pilot of a personality and replace it with endless exposition. It’s presented as a bleak almost sterile procedural, albeit one with a very good cast, and while viewers may feel mildly curious about the events that led to the pile of dead bodies, there’s nothing here to suggest that we will ever care much for the characters, particularly Greenwell’s Myfanwy, a humorless vessel for exposition.

Divorced from the source material, I’m still willing to give The Rook another episode or two to right the ship and develop the characters, but I suspect that for the book readers, The Rook will only piss you off for its complete inability to translate the tone of the book to the small screen. Alas, it feels like Starz took a book and tried to mold it to fit the network’s tone — sleek, dark, and clipped — but in doing so, the series left out what it is that made Daniel O’Malley’s spy thriller such a hit.

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.

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Header Image Source: Starz