Now on its fifth actor to play the lead role, the Jack Ryan franchise has had nearly as many reboots as James Bond in half the time. The latest iteration brings Tom Clancy’s famed intelligence analyst to the small screen courtesy of Amazon Prime streaming. How well does the property translate to episodic television?
Perhaps an even more pertinent question is what kind of exciting spy intrigue does Jack Ryan (or Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, as the series is credited) really have to offer that 24 and Homeland didn’t already cover on TV? To be perfectly honest, not a lot. That isn’t to say that it’s a bad show, just that it fails to break any new ground and winds up feeling a little redundant.
Until now, Amazon has struggled to create a breakout flagship series to define it as a television streaming provider, the way Netflix has House of Cards or Hulu has The Handmaid’s Tale. Jack Ryan is obviously intended to fill that role and Amazon has clearly poured a lot of money into its production and marketing. This is a very slick and expensive television series, with glossy production values, a globe-hopping plot that takes the character from D.C. to Paris to various points in the Middle East, and several big action sequences spread out across the season’s eight episodes.
One of the main things that differentiated Jack Ryan as a literary character from, say, James Bond or Jason Bourne, was that he’s an analyst, not an action hero. He foils the evil schemes of foreign agents and terrorists by studying them and figuring out their plans, not necessarily running around and shooting at them. To that end, John Krasinski, who originally shot to fame on the NBC sitcom The Office, is actually pretty good casting. Early episodes in the season make at least a token effort to show Ryan crunching data and, you know, analyzing things. However, Amazon didn’t pay $100-and-something million to adapt a slow-burn John Le Carré espionage drama to screen. This is meant to be an action series, with enough shootouts and explosions to make an impressive Super Bowl ad. Michael Bay (who first tried to turn Krasinski into an action star in 13 Hours) is an Executive Producer. As such, the show plays up Ryan’s backstory as a former Marine by giving him PTSD issues related to a mission gone wrong, and makes countless contrived excuses to put Ryan and his boss/mentor, Jim Greer (Wendell Pierce from Treme and Suits), into the field, where they invariably get stuck in the thick of the action with plenty of need to shoot at bad guys.
The show is not based on any particular Tom Clancy novel, just the character in a general sense. Because it takes place in the present day, the story has been moved up from Clancy’s Cold War setting to the modern War on Terror. The action starts when Ryan, a low-level analyst in the CIA’s Terror Finance and Arms Division, detects a suspicious money movement leading to Suleiman (Ali Suliman), an Islamic terrorist that Ryan calls “the next Bin Laden” and believes is plotting a major terror attack. Before you know it, he and Greer are jetting around the world to hunt down leads, kill terrorists, and rescue Suleiman’s abused wife (Dina Shihabi, who bears a bizarre resemblance to Rachel Bilson) and children. In between these adventures, Ryan periodically returns home to Washington to date a hot doctor (Abbie Cornish) who specializes in controlling Ebola outbreaks. Wouldn’t it just be an amazing coincidence if Ebola somehow factored into the evil terrorist plot? Nah, that’d be a little far-fetched…
As it turns out, this version of Jack Ryan dispenses with notions of realism fairly early on, in favor of Jack Bauer-style heroics. In fact, Suleiman’s absurdly convoluted plan bears a striking resemblance to a past season of 24. The series also shares some of that show’s issues with racial politics. Save for Suleiman’s wife, almost every other Middle Eastern character is a Hollywood terrorist stereotype. Attempting to compensate for this, the wife is sympathetic (though she exists only to be a damsel-in-distress, which is regressive in a different way). Also, the Greer character has been made Muslim so that he can scold a random background player for spouting overtly racist MAGA rhetoric.
Season Verdict / Grade: B
Lest this review seem too negative, I actually did enjoy Jack Ryan. It’s an entertaining show that looks great and has a bunch of well-done action set-pieces. However, for all the hype built up around it, I hoped for something a little more interesting with a voice of its own. Instead, the entire time I watched the series, I had a nagging feeling that I’d already seen it all before, in one form or another. It never felt especially true to Tom Clancy’s writing, and I’m not sure I really bought into Krasinski playing the character. He’s never exactly bad in the role, but he also never seems fully invested in it. His performance feels like an actor taking a job that he knows will be important for his career, and trying not to screw it up. As a result, he doesn’t take any risks, and neither does the show.