Right off the bat, I will say the one, perfect decision made by Jack Ryan co-creators Carlton Cuse and Graham Roland was casting John Krasinski as their title character. John Krasinski—currently hitting the peak of his well-earned transition from Office Boy to Action Man—is incredibly charming. Jack Ryan the character is not. Over the first four episodes of Amazon’s new spy-thriller series—based on a character created by Tom Clancy—Jack Ryan doesn’t have much of a personality outside the fact that he’s played by John Krasinski. Cuse and Roland bank so hard on the goodwill built up by eight years of seeing Jim Halpert onscreen that they should give U.S. Office creator Greg Daniels a co-writing credit. The result is a slick, expensive-looking show where the main character is by far the least interesting part. The rest? Let’s just say I hope you never found Homeland too gratuitous.
The series mostly follows Jack Ryan, a CIA agent—sorry, CIA analyst, as he reminds every person he comes into contact with—who performs most of his duties from behind a desk. Ryan follows a paper trail to a shadowy figure known only as Suleiman, an enigmatic terrorist leader that our main character believes to be the next Osama bin Laden. The mild-mannered analyst’s discovery forces him—stop me if you’ve heard this before—to get out from behind the desk and into the field. Together with his surly new boss James Greer (The Wire‘s Wendell Pierce, who is fantastic), Ryan dives a bit too deep over his head into an international conflict that quickly becomes personal.
It’s a familiar story, but one with the promise of those good, old-fashioned 24-style thrills. But Cuse and Roland can’t quite figure out how they want to tell it. Jack Ryan often whiplashes between a data-collecting cyber-thriller and a Michael Bay explosion-a-palooza and the result is more often than not a jumbled mess (To be fair, Bay is a producer). The first episode leans heavily on the analyzing portion of being a CIA analyst, with a lot of Jack squinting at scrolling bank account numbers and—in perhaps the most relatable TV moment of 2018—intensely sticking Post-it notes to his computer screen. But that same episode ends in a disorienting, bloody firefight at a U.S. army compound that mostly works to wake up anyone who came looking for an action show and remind everyone else of how much money was spent on this series.
It’s just odd to realize mid-way through that a show featuring this many explosions and gratuitous, all-too-familiar terrorist attacks can also be this boring. Again, this comes down to the main character; there’s a reason names like Harrison Ford, Ben Affleck, and Chris Pine couldn’t launch Jack Ryan into a franchise. Krasinski lends an un-earned charisma to the character through sheer presence alone, but the nature of the character itself forces him into the background of most situations looking like he’d much, much rather be playing Minesweeper. Most of this series’ advertising, which frames Krasinski slack-jawed and decked out in badass bulletproof vests in front of, like, an aircraft carrier exploding in the background is misleading at best.
The slack caused by the weightlessness of the main character is picked up by a few uneven subplots; the show actual spends a lot of time with the man known as Suleiman (Ali Suliman). Without giving too much away, I do genuinely appreciate that the writers gave its main antagonist a fleshed out backstory and motivation that goes beyond the easy Death-To-America generalization it easily could have been. In fact, that’s one of Jack Ryan‘s strengths. Anytime it delves into the ongoing war in the Middle East, it doesn’t paint anybody as perfect, world-savin’ heroes. You can easily imagine a Jack Ryan that is just an extended “America, Fuck Yeah” music video. But here, U.S. troops roll menacingly into crowded marketplaces and kill from the sky with the push of a button. In Jack Ryan, any type of war does come off as hell.
But once again, that’s also the problem; Jack Ryan wants to have its cake and eat it too. (In this scenario, the cake is drone strikes.) War is hell, yes, but war is also very badass and cool. Staging a big, loud shootout and explosion set-piece in Paris, France borders on obscene when we still live in a time when just Googling “Paris terrorist attack” isn’t specific enough. Jack Ryan so oddly basks in the violence of its various terrorist attack scenes, justifying them only as fuel for a handsome, strong-jawed man to eventually get revenge for America, and therefore the world.
The perfect example of why I felt so off about Jack Ryan comes at the very end of Episode 4. Men disguised as priests carry out a gas attack on a church during a crowded Mass. It’s a scene that builds tension by specifically framing the faces of innocent people minding their own business. It builds and builds until…the attack is successful. It’s just screams and death and horror. In the end, for all its bells and whistles, Jack Ryan doesn’t have much to say about death, or terror, or the world we live in that can’t be interpreted by the light of a big-budget fireball.
Jack Ryan premieres Friday, August 31st on Amazon.