Amazon’s Jack Ryan TV series has a lot going for it. In addition to being a part of the larger Tom Clancy franchise, with a title character who has been at the forefront of five major motion pictures, it stars a likable leading man in John Krasinski, whose everyman quality is in keeping with how the character has been portrayed. What’s curious about the new series from co-creators Graham Roland and Carlton Cuse is how quickly it sets out to establish the degree to which its everyman’s everyman state of being is only skin deep. It’s almost as though this updated iteration of the character was based in part on the path Krasinski himself has taken in Hollywood.
Aside from The Office, Krasinski appeared in numerous roles playing variations on a theme, like the bearded expectant father in Away We Go, and films like Promised Land, Big Miracle, and more recently, battling aliens in his directorial debut, A Quiet Place. In short, Krasinski’s the charming good guy; whether he’s tooling around the country with Maya Rudolph or freeing whales in the arctic with Drew Barrymore, he’s the hero we need, even though we may not deserve him. But it was his transformation into a chiseled action hero in Michael Bay’s silly 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi that Krasinski’s relatable, everyman persona took a turn that sent him on a path to play not only Jack Ryan, but this specific version of the character.
In its heart of hearts, Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan aims to be a globe spanning action-adventure series. It clearly wants to capture the spirit of the Clancy brand as it exists today, mostly in video game form — i.e., militaristic shoot-‘em-ups emphasizing the tactical prowess of U.S. Special Forces (not too far off from 13 Hours, actually). In doing so, it also affects the tone of films like Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger, and The Hunt For Red October, though it’s less interested in presenting the more bookish Jack Ryan embodied by the likes of Harrison Ford and Alec Baldwin. Instead, the series aims to capitalize on both sides of the image Krasinski has cultivated for himself, presenting its title character as a humble, eco-friendly (he rides his bike to work, in D.C. traffic no less!) too-smart-for-his-own-good CIA analyst, who is also secretly a formidable former Marine with a back full of scars to prove it. This is called having your (beef)cake and eating it too, and, to its credit, Jack Ryan is not shy about its appetites.
A big part of the show’s appetite is in need to blow stuff up. This causes an interesting schism in the direction of the show. At a certain point, Jack Ryan doesn’t know whether to be more of a Michael Bay-style action series, one that’s never met a shanty town it can’t drive a Humvee through, or a data-driven post-9/11 thriller. There’s no reason the series can’t be both, though striking that balance appears to be a considerable challenge. After the first six episodes, it’s clear where the show’s headed. Rather than a hero who is in over his head and must rely on his wits to survive, viewers are treated to a reluctant badass who finds himself called back into action.
The result, then, is a sometimes stale actioner that, in its efforts to ground the narrative in a familiar reality, relies too heavily on stock characters, details, and circumstances audiences have been pelted with for years. The first half of the premiere follows Jack in his role as an analyst, where he’s at odds with his new boss, James Greer (Wendell Pierce), who’s on his last leg at the CIA after an incident at his last assignment made him persona non grata at the agency. Following a favor from Nathan Singer (Timothy Hutton), Greer is handed his current position, one that, at first, has him walking on eggshells as a way of decelerating his downward trajectory. The series also takes a few stubborn steps to introduce Cathy Mueller (Abbie Cornish) as a potential love interest. Cathy is the daughter of a wealthy industrialist who wants to use Jack’s penchant for numbers for fun and profit (mostly profit). But no sooner is Cathy introduced than Jack is literally flown off in a helicopter on a secret mission he was instrumental in kickstarting, but had no intention of participating in.
Just as its settling into a nice rhythm, with Jack and Greer butting heads, and he and Cathy flirting with one another, the series abruptly shifts gears and heads off to the Middle East. In the blink of an eye, Jack is taking part in a series of interrogations meant to identify a terrorist with plans to attack the U.S. Although the series begins with an ‘80s-set cold open meant to explain how the show’s antagonist would come to be radicalized on account of U.S. policy in the region, it’s as though Jack Ryan is unaware Homeland has been on television for the past seven years. As a result, this excursion to the Middle East feels outmoded, like reheated leftovers from Showtime’s Emmy-winning table.
Where Jack Ryan finds greater success is not in its action sequences, but rather in its moments of inaction. As comfortable and convincing as Krasinski is chasing suspects through winding city streets or brawling in a dusty makeshift interrogation room, the character is far more compelling when dealing with the slow-turning wheels of governmental bureaucracy and the intelligence community, or fending off the advances of greedy capitalists. Krasinski’s greatest weapon is an unassuming “aw, shucks” demeanor that belies Jack’s exceptional intelligence as well as his tactical proficiency in the field. At times, it’s as though Krasinski is quietly railing against the show’s explosive aspirations, making Jack’s muted moments more captivating than his chaotic ones.
This carries over to his relationships, too. Pierce, who knows a thing or two about the importance of onscreen chemistry between two men working toward a common goal, elevates the otherwise expository interplay between Greer and Ryan, making it feel somehow more personal and therefore easier for the audience to invest in this burgeoning relationship. Likewise, when the series finds time for Jack and Cathy to spend time with one another, their exchanges emphasize the title character’s duality, and his internal conflict comes into better focus. The same can’t be said for Cathy, however, who mostly gets short shrift in the episodes made available to critics ahead of time.
In its first season, the most interesting conflict in Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan isn’t between the people spreading terror and those compelled to stop them, but rather in the show’s attempts to make that narrative seem compelling in 2018. The early successes and failures point to a series that delivers a lot of action, but doesn’t quite live up to expectations or escape the shadow of its predecessors (namely, Red October, Patriot Games, and Clear and Present Danger). But with season 2 already ordered, there’s both room and opportunity for improvement. And seeing how the series builds its characters and their place in this familiar world, it’s not too outlandish to think Jack Ryan will find a way to be more compelling, in addition to blowing more stuff up in future seasons.
Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan premieres Friday, August 31 on Amazon Prime Video.