Say the name “Truxton Spangler,” and a certain sort of TV fan’s eyes will light up. Fair warning: Once Spangler’s name has been dropped, mentions of Kale Ingram, four-leaf clovers and breakfast cereal are likely to follow.
If these references sound as if they belonged to an arcane code, that’s appropriate, given that they spring from the obscure AMC spy drama “Rubicon,” which ran for one season in 2010. Despite the deluge of TV we’ve endured in the past decade, certain moments, images and, yes, names from this long-dead drama remain fresh in my memory. TV loves spy serials, which can provide ambiguity and explosions in equal measure. But few espionage sagas had a cast of characters as specific and as brilliantly portrayed as the rogue’s gallery of “Rubicon.”
The good news is that the ranks of Spangler acolytes may grow now that the network’s paid subscription service, AMC Premiere, has added all 13 episodes of “Rubicon.” A rewatch affirms that it holds up — and that, in many ways, it was ahead of its time.
Some of the appeal, for television critics anyway, might be the premise of “Rubicon.” The show follows a set of analysts and managers at the fictional API, a private company that synthesizes data provided by various American spy agencies. Anyone who writes about TV for a living is bound to be attracted to this tale of rumpled, well-intentioned people trying to make sense of narratives with inexplicable gaps and challenging inconsistencies.
But there’s much more to “Rubicon” than its nerdy appeal. Now that conspiracy theories have moved from the fringes to the center of political life, the questions “Rubicon” asks about the manipulation of truth and the ways the powerful intentionally obscure their most craven agendas are more compelling than ever. “Rubicon” anticipated Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek), the distrustful protagonist of “Mr. Robot,” by half a decade. (The “Rubicon” characters, however, are drowning in paper and don’t use their computers much, which may well have been a prescient precaution.)
It would be wrong for a piece about a spy drama to reveal too many secrets, but there’s much that can be discussed without ruining a “Rubicon” binge. Its star, James Badge Dale — who also appeared on “24,” a flashier and more problematic secret-agent tale — brings a well-calibrated mixture of determination and doubt to the role of Will Travers, an analyst who is promoted to API management. Travers is shy and relatively awkward, but he’s not a pushover, and much of the season revolves around his attempts to figure out if his bosses — and the bigwigs they answer to — are using the intellectual output of API employees in shady ways.
A fair bit of “Rubicon” can be enjoyed as a delicious workplace drama. Travers’s immediate boss, Kale Ingram (Arliss Howard), is a cool cucumber who boasts of a resting pulse of 46 beats per minute. Howard makes Ingram’s calculated reticence fascinating: We’re led to believe that the motives of this intelligence veteran are honorable, but that’s by no means a sure thing, certainly not as far as Travers is concerned.
The eccentric but ruthless Spangler (Michael Cristofer), API’s top executive, is even harder to figure out. Often found munching on a bowl of cereal, Spangler tries to manipulate both his staff and the government types who pay API’s bills in ways that are every bit as addictive as anything that ever transpired on “Mad Men.” As a private business, API has to hustle for contracts, and thus Spangler is only too happy to keep representatives of the military-industrial complex happy. But over time, it begins to look as if he were playing a much deeper game. (My personal conspiracy theory: Cristofer’s string-pulling “Mr. Robot” character, Phillip Price, is Spangler gone undercover. Wake up, sheeple!)
Unlike “24” or “Homeland,” whose relentless pursuit of “big twists” ultimately led to seasons of diminishing returns, “Rubicon” offers storytelling that is methodical and measured. It does an outstanding job of conveying the personal and psychological costs of working in the American intelligence trenches during the war on terror. Dallas Roberts, who later appeared on “The Good Wife,” is particularly wonderful as Miles Fiedler, a twitchy genius with haunted eyes.
The show’s greatest virtue may be that, unlike too many serious dramas of the last decade, it’s never a slog. It perks along at a steady pace, though there are a couple of subplots, including one featuring Miranda Richardson as the widow of a secretive rich man, that never quite come together. Still, the specificity of the characters and the able deployment of spy-show tropes — conversations in garages, tantalizing codes and scenes of characters tacking handwritten clues on walls — make it enjoyable to follow the characters as they fall down various rabbit holes.
“Rubicon” — like secret-agent shows as diverse as “Strike Back,” “London Spy,” “The Americans,” “Berlin Station” and “The Night Manager” — keeps a laser focus on the human beings at its core, people who are smart enough to know they’re not omniscient and who are queasy about the sometimes hasty life-or-death assessments they must provide. A sense of bittersweet loss pervades the show, and not just because Travers’s wife and child were killed on Sept. 11. Once inside the fold of API, these people can’t share their professional challenges with anyone else; they have only one another to commiserate with.
Complicated friendships and tasteful ambiguity, however, don’t always pay the bills. Ratings (remember them?) mattered more when “Rubicon” debuted, and it didn’t attract a big audience. Unlike “Homeland,” which came along a year later, it had no big-name stars. “Rubicon” also endured a showrunner change, when its creator, Jason Horwitch, left, and Henry Bromell (“Northern Exposure,” “Homicide”) took over.
As much as I might want the API gang to return, that’s unlikely. Bromell, who moved on to “Homeland” and wrote its best episode (“Q&A”) before dying in 2013, is not around to lead a revival. Speaking of loss, the cast member Christopher Evan Welch, who infused his prickly character, Grant Test, with intelligent sweetness and humane depth (and who was also brilliant in a key “Silicon Valley” role), died far too young the same year.
Perhaps it’s appropriate that the sole season of “Rubicon” will stand alone. Though if Truxton Spangler somehow engineered API’s return to the small screen, I wouldn’t be surprised.
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