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Josh Reviews Netflix’s Jack Ryan: Season One

I loved The Hunt for Red October when I first saw it when it was released back in 1990, and to this day it remains one of my very favorite movies.  None of the follow-up Jack Ryan films was able to match it.  I like the two Harrison Ford films (Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger), though I dream of an alternate universe in which Alec Baldwin returned as Ryan rather than being replaced by Ford.  I don’t think The Sum of All Fears is as bad as most people do, but there’s no question that attempt to reboot the Jack Ryan film franchise didn’t work.  It was, however, far superior to 2014’s abysmal Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, about which the less said, the better.  Now comes Amazon’s eight-episode Jack Ryan series.  So what did I think?

I quite liked it!  This first season of Jack Ryan is strong, exciting television.  The show is superbly made, with a great cast and an epic scope.  This first season was exciting and tense, with great action and compelling cliffhangers that hooked me in and resulted in my blazing through the entire season in short time.   Show-runners Carlton Cuse (who ran Lost with Damon Lindelof) and Graham Roland have done strong work here.

Just like The Sum of All Fears and Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, this new Jack Ryan show again reboots the story to zero and retells us Ryan’s origin.  While I find this repeated rebooting to be tiresome, I can understand why a new Jack Ryan TV show would feel the need to do this, and thankfully, they’ve found some interesting new spins on the tale of the young analyst Ryan getting swept up in action and espionage in the field, so the show doesn’t feel like a rehash of stuff we’ve seen before.

While I still long for a great Ryan movie that can rival Red October, after watching these eight episodes, it’s clear that a TV mini-series is the perfect format for telling a Tom Clancy-style story.  (This series isn’t directly adapted from any of Mr. Clancy’s novels, but the type of global terror-threat story it depicts feels very much in the style of Mr. Clancy’s work.)  The eight-episode season gives the show plenty of time to tell a far-reaching, complicated story taking place in many different countries, and allows us to follow many different characters, good guys and bad guys.  The show is able to tell a complex story that has the room to breathe, as opposed to having to squash everything into a two-hour film.  The result is the first truly successful new filmed Jack Ryan story in quite a long while.

I’d at first thought that this new Jack Ryan TV show would use its length to explore Jack and the other characters more than the films did, though that didn’t quite turn out to be the case.  The show has a terrific cast, led by John Krasinski (The Office) and Wendell Pierce (The Wire).  But the show doesn’t wind up digging too deeply into any of the characters.  (I’d say Mr. Pierce’s James Greer winds up being the most fully-realized character.  More on this in a moment.)  More than a character-driven drama, what the show reminded me of the most was 24 in its heyday, during seasons one and two.  This is a compliment, not a criticism!  Like 24 at it’s best, Jack Ryan is a riveting, fast-paced action/adventure/espionage story that is a tense, exciting watch, as the bad-guy terrorists manage to stay just one step ahead of our hero right up until the end.

This is not a show made on the cheap.  The production values of Jack Ryan are spectacular.  I don’t know where the show was filmed, but the series takes place across multiple settings in many different countries, and each one of them is depicted 100% convincingly, from Yemen to Syria to Turkey to France to Baltimore, Maryland.  There are a number of terrific action sequences, from the terrorist assault on a U.S. black site in Yemen in the premiere episode, to U.S. JSOC soldiers’ assault on the terrorist leader Suleiman’s compound in the penultimate episode, and many more.  Everything looks great and feels real.  It wasn’t so long ago that a TV show trying to tell this sort of story would have to cut so many obvious corners in trying to depict these events and locations on-screen and on-budget.  But every scene of Jack Ryan feels like a big-budget feature film.  It’s very impressive.

I loved John Krasinski in the American version of The Office.  I haven’t seen his more recent projects that have seen him step into dramatic work, but he’s very solid here as Ryan.  Alec Baldwin remains the definitive Jack Ryan for me, but Mr. Krasinski does strong work here.  He has the physical presence to play the role (Mr. Krasinski is quite buff now!!), and he’s able to play Ryan the nerd analyst and also Ryan the former Marine who can use a weapon and hold his own in a hand-to-hand fight.  He underplays Ryan a tad more than I’d expected, especially in the first few episodes, but it works for me.  He’s also unafraid to give Ryan a sharper edge in a few places than I’d expected.  This Ryan is not sweet Jim Halpert.  That also surprised me a few times, but it works for this slightly reimagined new version of Ryan.

I will love Wendell Pierce forever for his work as Bunk on The Wire, and I also loved him as Antoine on Treme.  I was tickled by the idea of Mr. Pierce’s playing James Greer (a character so memorably played by James Earl Jones in the first several Ryan films), and I love this reimagined version of Greer that Mr. Pierce and the writers have created.  This is a tougher, meaner Greer than we’ve seen before.  He doesn’t yet have the affectionate, paternal relationship with Ryan that we saw when we first met the character in The Hunt for Red October.  Over the course of this season, we get to see how these two very different men begin to build a relationship with one another, and I enjoyed seeing the arc of that story.  I was also interested by the backstory given to Greer here, recently divorced and struggling with his Muslim faith, having converted mostly for his wife.  This gave an interesting dimension to Greer that I found fascinating.

None of the movies managed to make Jack’s wife Cathy Mueller much of an interesting character, but the show takes the best swing at this so far.  We get to see Jack and Cathy’s “meet-cute” at a party her dad was throwing, and follow the early days of their relationship.  I liked this aspect of the story, and Abbie Cornish was great in the role.  I rolled my eyes a bit when both Cathy and the President of the United States coincidentally found themselves in danger at the same location in the season finale, but thankfully the series avoided getting too soap-opera-ish or silly by having Cathy be too ridiculously involved in the terrorist goings-on, and instead focusing on her skills and expertise as a physician.

The season spends a lot of time on the bad guy, Suleiman, and his family, and I enjoyed the show’s efforts in developing the villain into a character with a background and a point-of-view.  Ali Suliman, an Arab-Israeli actor, plays the villain Suleiman, and he’s terrific.  I also quite enjoyed Dina Shihabi as Suleiman’s wife Hanin, as well as the actors who portrayed all three of their kids.

I was pleased to see Matt McCoy (a familiar character actor who’s appeared in projects as varied as Police Academy 5 & 6, L.A. Confidential, and the “Serenity Now” episode of Seinfeld) pop up as a doctor, as well as Ron Canada (who’s appeared as a variety of different characters on a variety of different Star Trek shows, as well as The X-Files, Babylon 5, The West Wing, and lots more) and Blair Brown (who recently played Judy King on Orange is the New Black) as U.S. officials.  John Magaro (another Orange is the New Black cast-member) is fine as the disillusioned drone pilot Victor, though his story-line was one of the few major mis-steps I felt this first season took.  I like the idea of this storyline, but it wasn’t given enough time to really develop, and since it was mostly separate from the main action of the show, it felt superfluous to me.

For the most part, the twists and turns of the show make sense and are believable.  Of course, a decently large suspension of disbelief is required at times.  This show is closer to the outlandish plot twists of 24 than the gritty, detailed realism of, say, The Wire.  But that’s OK!  There are a few turns that didn’t quite work for me (such as a late-in-the-show moment in which Suleiman learns a key piece of information through a video game, something which never should have gotten by the heroes, seeing as how they’d learned the villains communicated through video-game chat functions several episodes earlier), but for the most part, the show is so exciting and gripping that it carried me right along on the adventure.  And the show spent an agreeable amount of time on the behind-the-desk investigating that Jack and his CIA compatriots had to do, before they could get close to any action in the field.

I was happy that the season did not end on a cliffhanger but that, instead, all of the major plot threads were wrapped up.  I really like the approach of making each season of this show feel like a complete novel, and I hope that continues.  There are certainly many great season-ending cliffhangers of shows that I have loved, but in recent years I’ve more often found it lazy when shows keep things unresolved and mysteries unanswered at the end of a season.  It’s particularly painful in this age of streaming shows.  When shows used to run from approx. Sept. through May, you’d usually only have to wait three months for a cliffhanger to be resolved.  But now, many shows drop all on one day and so you can watch the whole season inside of a week, and then you have to wait a whole year, or more, before the show returns!  So I’ve lost my appetite for cliffhangers, and I’m delighted when a show allows its audience a satisfying resolution by the season’s end.  Jack Ryan does this perfectly, while also ending with a great scene that left me excited for season two and the possibility of further adventures for Jack and Greer in Moscow (a key location for a lot of action in many Tom Clancy novels — particularly The Cardinal in the Kremlin, one of my favorites).  (Though what I’ve read of season two says that the show will be focused mostly in South America, so I guess we’ll see what happens…!)

At only eight episodes in length, the show doesn’t overstay its welcome nor fall prey to the mid-season sag that many other streaming drama/adventure hour-long shows often seem to (such as many of the Marvel Netflix shows).  I zipped through these eight episodes in no time at all, and I am left wanting more!!  I am thrilled that season two is already in production.  I am hooked and am looking forward to further Jack Ryan adventures.

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