The return of "Mad Men" last week already makes AMC the place to go Sunday nights for the finest drama on television this summer.
Tonight comes a second reason to choose this cable channel, with the two-hour debut of "Rubicon," a richly textured conspiracy thriller created by three-time Peabody Award-winner Henry Bromell, a writer well-known to Baltimore audiences from the years when he lived and worked here as an executive producer of "Homicide: Life on the Street," NBC's ode to murder, grit and quality TV in Charm City.
Bromell's new AMC series will remind older viewers in a very good way of the surge of razor-edge feature films such as "Parallax View," "The Conversation" and "Three Days of the Condor" that arose in response to Watergate and the inglorious final days of the American experience in Vietnam in the 1970s. Younger viewers are going to find an engaging team of smart, complicated and intense intelligence analysts in their 20s and 30s led by James Badge Dale ("The Pacific") as Will Travers.
Add the seasoned talents of Miranda Richardson to the cast of a drama that speaks directly to the paranoia of post- 9/11 America as it explores an intelligence apparatus much like the one chronicled recently in The Washington Post, and you have entertainment that will keep you engaged and enough social relevance to make your brain rattle just a bit as the final credits roll.
"My dad worked for the CIA for something like 25 years," Bromell said in an interview last week, by way of starting to explain where the idea for the series came from.
The 62-year-old author revisited some of that psychic terrain in 2001 in "Little America," a widely acclaimed novel published by Knopf told from the point of view of an adult son of a CIA officer who had been heavily involved in operations in the Middle East in the 1950s — as Bromell's father was. Bromell spent much of his childhood overseas, at his father's postings, he says.
"The focus has always been on the guys in operations, the 'spies' and the 'deep cover' and all that — the guys people like John Kennedy were so interested in," Bromell says. "And nobody ever thought much about the analyst guys, of which there were a lot more — these nerdy, smart, behind-the-scenes guys."
But after Sept. 11, 2001, that "sort of shifted," he says. "The analysts even took on a certain romance — with us starting to think these guys are going to be the ones who save our heads."
As Bromell sees it, U.S. intelligence officials "knew who the bad guys were" before 9/11.
"We could target them. We could look at photos and say, 'What's that bump in the desert outside Tehran?' " He explains, referring to what an encampment of insurgents or a battery of weapons might look like in a satellite photo.
"But now, you have to map the whole world, and then you have to solve the puzzle of what the connection might be between a bartender in London with a baby sitter in Beirut — and a businessman in Jakarta. And that's kind of a mind-boggling job. How do you do that job? And if they fail in that job, something horrible happens like 9/11. That's what anchors the series."
That, and the "teasing out a [workplace] conspiracy" that involves the violent death of a mentor to one of the young analysts, says Bromell, a one-time resident of Henderson's Wharf, who so liked living in the area that in 1996 he created a drama titled "Falls Road."
(The series, which would have been filmed in Baltimore, featured a professional couple who drove the north-south corridor each day from their home in the suburbs to jobs as a homicide detective and EMS worker in the city. NBC made the hourlong pilot , but when it wasn't picked up as a series, the writer-producer moved to Los Angeles.)
"I loved living in Baltimore and working on 'Homicide,' " he says. "I loved the way people in Baltimore adopted 'Homicide.' It was their show and it was like the Orioles or something — of all things, they embraced this gritty, hand-held [camera-taped] show about murder as their own. I loved it."
Bromell also acknowledges his love of "those wonderful movies" of the 1970s, such as "All the President's Men" and "The Parallax View," and the influence they have on "Rubicon."
"The heroes are all small figures dwarfed by overwhelming corporate fascist architecture," he says on a roll that will end with his reciting bits of the final dialogue in "Three Days of the Condor." "They're afraid and paranoid of the collusion between politics and corporations that [President Dwight] Eisenhower warned us about" when he left office in 1961.
He feels there's a "different but similar zeitgeist today," with "all kinds of people worried about big government."