At first glance, viewers may look at the new Starz series The Rook and find themselves wondering why the premium cable network opted to green light this spy thriller in lieu of delivering a third season of the far more compelling and clever Counterpart. The surface-level similarities between the two are myriad, as the now-canceled espionage drama shrewdly blended science fiction with spy craft, whereas The Rook attempts to do the same, albeit with a supernatural element that is just one of several components borrowing from popular culture.
The series begins with its main character, Myfanwy Thomas (Emma Greenwell, Shameless), waking near a river among several dead bodies, with no recollection of who they are or how they got there. Added to the confusion is her selective amnesia, which has left her without any memory as to her own identity, thereby creating a narrative foundation similar to that of The Bourne Identity. Aside from the series’ obvious similarities to the Matt Damon franchise (sorry, Jeremy Renner), the mechanics of this particular device are, first and foremost, there to serve an altogether different and entirely superficial purpose: allowing Myfanwy (it rhymes with Tiffany) to be both the befuddled protagonist, uncertain as to the veracity of what anyone tells her, and also her own (and thereby the audience’s) exposition machine, filing herself in on all the various details and questions leading to and stemming from her memory wipe. The approach also provides a passive introduction to the various players in what amounts to a Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy-like scenario that also includes Joely Richardson as Myfanwy’s boss, Lady Farrier, and Olivia Munn as a headstrong American agent named Monica Reed.
The characters all function, in one way or another, around a clandestine British agency known as Checquy — essentially spies with paranormal abilities — which is appealing enough as a concept that the addition of Mfanwy’s memory loss and subsequent self-guided tour through the labyrinthine plot that was her pre-mind-wipe life results in an unwieldy surfeit of ideas. As such, the series struggles early on to juggle its many threads, all while luxuriating in several tedious bouts of exposition delivered by Myfanwy to Mufanwy, either in the form of video journals or hand-written letters left in her work desk. The intrigue of Myfanwy leading herself to believe someone within Checquy is responsible for her confusion, and that she should therefore trust no one, is undercut by the ready availability of information left by her past self, in particular the letters no one at a super-secret (i.e., paranoid) government organization seems to be aware of.
That being said, while its execution is languid and clumsy at first, and it often reads like a pastiche of X-Men, The Bourne Identity, and various John le Carré novels, The Rook doesn’t lack for ambition. That is most evident in the show’s attempts to equate its supernaturally powerful characters - people with Extreme Variant Abilities (or EVAs for short) - with human trafficking victims. This opens up a potentially fascinating and relevant plot thread that would better ground the series, provided The Rook could focus its attention long enough to develop a story around such a revelation.
Unfortunately, the series’ start is overwhelmed by an avalanche of half-formed ideas engulfing an already nebulous conceit. After the first four hours, it’s not unreasonable for anyone watching to ask how Myfawny’s manipulation by someone within Checquy, the trafficking of EVAs, and Reed’s investigation into a dead American agent are meant to connect, much less why the audience should care.
Most of the trouble starts with the series’ bizarrely hands-off approach to its supernaturally powered individuals, as their various abilities (Myfanwy's included) are mostly ill-defined. In particular, there is a quartet of bleach-blonde investigators who share a hive mind and recently had a tryst with Myfanwy. The reluctance of the series to establish rules around its characters' powers is ultimately to the detriment of the story, something that's made worse by how the series tasks its actors with portraying superpowered individuals without the aid of visual effects. While this lo-fi approach undoubtedly makes The Rook a more financially attractive option for Starz, it also has the inevitable drawback of making the actors look silly, as if they’re expecting some splashy VFX will aid in convincing the audience of their character's otherworldly potential. Instead, there’s just a lot of very intense staring and clenching of fists. The show would have been better off cutting to a sign that reads: We Assure You Powers Are Being Used.
While the series contends with obvious budget constraints, an excessive amount of largely unformed ideas, and at least one inessential subplot involving Olivia Munn’s character, pacing is ultimately its worst enemy. The Rook is a lot of things, but being slow to the point of exhaustion is practically its calling card. The series makes AMC’s enervated Rubicon look like the overstimulated first half of any Michael Bay movie. That being said, there’s intrigue here and a compelling storyline just waiting to be cultivated. But The Rook will have to cull several unnecessary plot threads and distinguish itself as something other than an extremely low-key X-Men/Bourne Identity mashup in order to sustain interest.
The Rook premieres Sunday, June 30 @8pm on Starz.