Although it probably seems like it, I’m not contractually obligated to watch every spy show ever made; t’s really just a compulsion. But I’m not sure that urge is strong enough to compel me further with Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, a contemporary spy thriller as bland as its title. In theory, this is a show I should want to last forever, but it’s so dull and flavorless I come away from the first season indifferent to its fate. (Side note: it’s already been renewed, of course.)
John Krasinski steps into the shoes of Clancy’s cerebral action hero Jack Ryan, a financial analyst for the CIA whose bookish demeanor conceals a dark past of violent experience as a marine. Of course, this makes him just the man for the job when a combination of brains and bravery is required—a situation that develops quickly, right after Ryan gets a new boss, Jim Greer (Wendell Pierce). Greer is a cynical former field officer, recently demoted to Ryan’s quiet department in the wake of an undisclosed fiasco. Ryan’s sharp analytical eye and outspoken mouth get him and Greer assigned to a task force investigating a bin Ladenesque Middle Eastern terrorist named Suleiman (Ali Suliman), whose financial dealings suggest a massive new threat may be in the offing. The case sends Ryan and Greer all over the world in pursuit of clues, suspects, and danger.
With the weight of a successful franchise behind it, Jack Ryan has plenty of advantages going in. The budget is robust, the production values are solid, the cinematography’s attractive, and the international scenery is eye-catching. What the show lacks, to an almost fatal degree, is personality. It’s tragic, because a spy series starring John Krasinski and Wendell Pierce should absolutely be brimming with personality. What little spark the show has, however, is due almost entirely to their performances—from scripts that do very little to help them. Ryan’s never been a particularly interesting character, a straight-arrow boy scout who never puts a foot wrong. Krasinski’s usual charms gamely struggle to make him relatable, particularly during a largely extraneous romantic subplot that wastes Abbie Cornish. But the dialogue is so flat off the page that I found him very difficult to get invested in here. Pierce does much better as Ryan’s jaded mentor, but isn’t afforded much more of an opportunity to shine than his co-star.
Instead of working to leverage these primary assets, the show focuses on the mechanistic unfolding of a shopworn thriller plot that feels like its was lifted from the cutting-room floor of other shows that did it better, several times over (24, Homeland, MI-5, Sleeper Cell). Suleiman is stamped out of the Middle Eastern villain template, and all the time spent exploring his motivations and family life fails to make him any more interesting than the heroes. It’s a shame, because there’s promise here. The pilot is decent, finishing with a gripping action sequence. The sixth episode stands out, when the heroes ally with a shifty, figuratively short-lived character named Tony (Numan Acar), who throws them into ethical debate. Here, there are glimmers of Krasinski and Pierce delivering something great together. Unfortunately, these highlights aren’t enough to elevate Jack Ryan above polished mediocrity.