While the franchise built from Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity may have stalled (temporarily) after the Jeremy Renner-led spinoff, The Bourne Legacy, and Matt Damon’s most recent return to the character, in the imaginatively titled Jason Bourne, Universal is hard at work keeping the series alive by switching gears from theatrical blockbusters to — what else? — an ongoing television series with Treadstone. Though it may sound as though it hews too close to Renner’s Legacy, the new series is more than a mere continuation of the Bourne saga without Jason Bourne; it is instead a vast, generation-spanning narrative that explores the origins of the clandestine government program responsible for turning people into easily controlled (well, not so easily) killing machines, while also moving the story forward into the present day.
It’s no small ask for audiences to buy into a story set in the Bourne Universe but without Jason Bourne — just ask Bourne Legacy writer and director Tony Gilroy. But Treadstone has an ace up its sleeve in that, rather than try and replace Damon’s admittedly irreplaceable Bourne with a single Bourne-like character, the series focuses its attention on expanding the cloak-and-dagger world of espionage and spycraft that not only makes the characters more exciting, but also — and this is important — interchangeable. Instead of operating in the margins of stories focused on Jason Bourne, Treadstone provides the audience with unfettered access to the “truth” of its titular program, one that, despite efforts quash it, continues apace today.
By shifting focus in that way, Treadstone is able to more easily operate as an ensemble, one that begins in the early ‘70s when a CIA agent, Randolf Bentley (Jeremy Irvine), unwittingly becomes one of the first successful “super spies,” albeit one created by the United States’ foe in the Cold War. In doing so, the series premiere delivers many of the familiar beats known to the Bourne franchise: superbly choreographed fight sequences, death-defying stunts, rooftop chases, international locales, government agents yelling at one another in high-tech control rooms, journalists uncovering massive conspiracies, etc. As such, the series is a successful mix of the old and the new, resulting in a story that will be comfortably familiar to audiences but will dangle enough tantalizing new elements that it feels as if the story is moving somewhere it hasn’t before. The fact that it does this with dual narratives — ostensibly moving forwards and backwards in time — is an added bonus that works in Treadstone’s favor.
In addition to Bentley, those narratives introduce Han Hyo-joo as SoYun Park, a North Korean piano teacher, and Doug McKenna (Brian J. Smith), a roughneck working in Alaska, who both happen to be Treadstone sleeper agents. Though it its essentially covering well-trod territory here, Treadstone introduces a new subset to the program called Cicada. Like Blackbriar, Cicada creates super spies, with the intent for them to be placed in unassuming public personas and activated as needed.
Treadstone takes great pains in introducing SoYun and Doug, and showing their confusion after being activated. But it also revels in what the Cicadas can do, meaning Randolf, Doug, and SoYun are all involved in the same sort of close-quarters hand-to-hand combat that made the films so much fun to watch. Surely much to the relief of many, the show delivers on this front, as Irvine, Hyo-joo, and Smith (among others) deliver believable, kinetic, and satisfying fisticuffs on a regular basis in the hour-long premiere and beyond.
But while the most important aspect of the series is undoubtedly its competence with regard to its action sequences, Treadstone still takes time to develop supporting characters, like Michelle Forbes and Michael Gaston as Ellen Becker and Dan Levine, respectively — think Joan Allen and Chris Cooper's characters from the films — Omar Metwally as a CIA agent, and Tracy Ifeachor as Tara Coleman, a discredited journalist who is closer to the truth about Treadstone than the government would like.
It all adds up to an attractive and engaging ensemble that lives up to the cinematic highs of the original films, while still regularly capitalizing on the breadth of storytelling that television allows. Case in point: both SoYung and Doug have established domestic lives — SoYung with a husband and son, and Doug with a wife — that will inevitably come into conflict with their duties as spies and assassins, especially as they become increasingly cognizant of who and what they really are. Meanwhile, Treadstone introduces a Russian agent named Petra (Emilia Schüle) who is a major player in both the ‘70s timeline and the present-day one. Petra not only helps bridge the two storylines, but hints at the degree to which audiences can expect Randolf to play a major part in both eras as well.
The result, then, is an entertaining action romp that knows how to please its audience. But Treadstone isn’t content to be merely a rehash of the best Bourne movies, as its early efforts move the franchise forward (and backwards) in some fascinating ways that may well change the future of the Bourne Universe.
Treadstone premieres Tuesday, October 15 @10pm on USA.