Private Spies: Rubicon Make 24 Look Sunny

Conspiracy thriller Rubicon replaces Jack Bauer's heroics with a dark story of post-9/11 intelligence for hire

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Illustration by Francisco Caceres for TIME; Rubicon: Craig Blankenhorn / AMC

The most implausible thing in the series 24 was, in retrospect, not the effectiveness of Jack Bauer's torture methods or the improbably fast travel through L.A. traffic or the lack of real-time bathroom breaks. It was the competence.

Time after time, over eight seasons, staffers at Bauer's Counter Terrorist Unit (CTU) would go to a wall of computers, plug in a cell-phone card, check some databases and — bingo! — pull up a picture and GPS location of a terrorist plotting an attack. In real life, the U.S. government proved unable to stop a guy trying to blow up his underwear, much less the 9/11 plotters.

Last spring, 24 went off the air. The illusion of omniscient intelligence ended years before that. A two-year Washington Post investigation into the post-9/11 security complex revealed a sprawling "Top Secret America," as the paper called it, in which spy operations churned out too many reports to process and security was farmed out to hundreds of thousands of private contractors with little accountability.

This world of intel for hire is the setting for Rubicon (AMC, Sundays), a dark, wonkish conspiracy thriller set at a private intelligence firm. And it makes 24 look like a sunny tale of optimism.

Rubicon is an entertainment first, a 1970s-style paranoid corruption story. Will Travers (James Badge Dale) is a young analyst with the American Policy Institute (API), a private think tank that analyzes raw intelligence for U.S. agencies. He stumbles on evidence — hidden in newspaper-crossword clues — of a conspiracy with its tentacles in the API and God knows where else.

No one is going to mistake Will for Jack Bauer: he's a book-lugging data nerd in a V-neck sweater who looks as if he'd have a hard time breaking a pencil, let alone a neck. And the gloomy, academic API offices have none of the high-tech flourishes of CTU's headquarters.

But executive producer Henry Bromell, whose father was an intelligence operative and who interviewed ex-spies to prep for the show, says that's the point. There are no magic computers, just too much information in too many different hands with too little coordination.

"Since 9/11," Bromell says, "you're not just looking for a suspicious lump in the Iranian desert. You have to be looking bloody everywhere." There are millions of eyes and ears — wiretaps, satellites, data mining — but no single brain to synthesize all those nerve endings. When API head Truxton Spangler (Michael Cristofer) travels to Washington with Will to drum up business, he tells Will their job is to remind the national intelligence bigwigs that "the information they gather is useless unless they have us to make sense of it."

In 24, there were moles and bad apples, but the system, ultimately, was intended to keep us safe. Rubicon suggests that the intelligence complex itself is a danger: a shadow government that may be rotting from within because of its reach, power and prerogatives.

In 24 at least, the implied trade-off for Jack Bauer's entertaining civil rights violations was security. In Rubicon, it's not clear we're getting anything except the illusion of certainty. In one episode, a group of API analysts are assigned to determine whether the military should blow up a possible terrorist safe house — in an apartment block full of families. The attack could take out a mastermind who has murdered scores of innocent children. Or it might not. The team of brilliant minds crunch and debate the data, but in the end their ruling, they admit, is a "WAG": a wild-ass guess.

It's a somber picture of national security, and it won't appeal to everyone. Since 24, most new spy shows have moved in the opposite direction, toward retro escapism. NBC's upcoming Undercovers is a light romantic drama about a married spy team, à la Hart to Hart. Chuck, Burn Notice and Covert Affairs offer espionage with comedy and kung fu, high tech and short skirts. Their touchstones are less the murky networks of Top Secret America than the recent Keystone Kremlin bust of suburban Russian agents — comical diversions that are as much Maxwell Smart as James Bond. Rubicon, on the other hand, looks not to the swinging '60s or the Reagan years but to the mistrustful Watergate era and '70s thrillers like The Parallax View. Though set in the present, it's almost a period piece, like AMC's Mad Men, likewise substituting realism for nostalgia.

Rubicon's argument is not that our international enemies are fake. Bromell hints that Rubicon's conspirators most likely have very good reasons for their actions. But the show — like so much real-world reporting — suggests that in the name of security we've created a monster: powerful, unrestrained and with far too many heads for even Jack Bauer to knock together.