[This is a review of the Shooter series premiere. There will be SPOILERS.]
When it comes to television adaptations, are cable networks starting to scrape the bottom of the barrel in their search for new content? This is a reasonable question many entertainment consumers might have asked after hearing about Shooter, a new USA drama based on the near-decade-old (2007) Mark Wahlberg conspiracy thriller that even some of the actor's biggest fans may have forgotten about. Certainly, on paper, this particular adaptation does seem like an odd choice, but it also behooves us to look for the reasons why the network may have given it the green light.
Besides the fact that Wahlberg put his own Hollywood star power behind the project as an executive producer, USA was likely drawn to the show based on its political conspiracy storyline, and the fact that it came with a built-in audience familiar with the Bob Lee Swagger series of books from author Stephen Hunter. Possibly envisioning a modernized, political take on The Fugitive, the network had to believe in the potential for a narrative with enough twists and turns to keep viewers guessing as to exactly how the show's hero -- ex-Marine and expert marksman Swagger (Ryan Phillippe) -- would expose a conspiracy to assassinate the president of the United States while proving his own innocence. After the series premiere, 'Point of Impact,' it's clear that same potential still exists, even as the episode signaled that an exciting ride on board this thriller might also be a bumpy one.
On the one hand, serialized television seems to be a great format for the story. Where the film lacked the time and patience for developing Swagger's character, the series now has the opportunity to fully flesh him out -- and the premiere certainly does a good job of portraying him as both a sensitive family man and a prideful, dutiful patriot. Yet, while the film could focus on the story almost solely from Swagger's perspective, the series is tasked with introducing several main characters and managing the interweaving subplots that will inevitably take shape -- including the rogue investigation that FBI agent Nadine Memphis (Cynthia Addai-Robinson) will likely embark on following her first confrontation with Swagger. These threads will undoubtedly by important and essential to the larger plot, but based on the slight unevenness of the premiere, the series is already showing signs it may have trouble with narrative balance down the road.
Perhaps the most noticeable instance of this uneven feel came with the oddly sloppy and rushed introduction of Swagger's backstory, a crucially important plot and character element of the source material that worked to inform much of Swagger's internal motivation and the decisions he made on the run. And while the premiere would seem like a good place to insert this expository information, the tragic death of Swagger's former partner and spotter Donnie is mysteriously alluded to and then only briefly touched on in a scene that turns out to be much less emotionally impactful than the one that opened the film version of Shooter. As the series moves along, we expect more of Swagger's backstory to be doled out, but will it come off as meaningful or an afterthought? We'll have to wait to see how Shooter decides to play it.
Our hope is that Shooter does indeed focus its time and energy on what seems to be its biggest strength -- its lead character. Successfully combining American machismo with the cunning and intelligence of an incredible tactician, Swagger is the type of hero that we can easily root for. Sure, Phillippe's version might be less Rambo and more Dr. Richard Kimble, but giving the Swagger character more emotional depth is a good move for the series to make. The fact that the TV version of Swagger has a wife (Shantel VanSanten) and child (Lexy Kolker) instantly gives him more to fight for, which only raises the dramatic stakes while also making the character even more relatable and sympathetic.
If the series can stay focused on Swagger's story without straying too far into subplots and avoid a convoluted narrative, Shooter has a good chance to find and retain an audience looking for an action-packed, if somewhat conventional thriller. So far, there's nothing to really fall in love with about USA's adaptation, but we're also hoping that we haven't seen the best of Shooter yet, so stay tuned.
Shooter season 1 continues next Tuesday with 'Exfil' @10pm on USA.
Photos: Dean Buscher/USA Network