It’s hard to know where to start with a show like Amazon’s Jack Ryan, a show that follows the Netflix-Marvel Cinematic Universe template of updating and adding dignity to somewhat raw and dated source material.
Full disclosure – as an enthusiastic consumer of both military history and trashy books as a teenager, I read a fairish quantity of Tom Clancy. I think it’s hard to avoid Terry Pratchett’s veiled dig at Clancy and his ilk from The Last Continent, when he describes a certain stripe of crappy literature as “a thousand pages thick and crammed with weapon specifications.” Such was my experience, also, but I lived for lurid violence, of which there was plenty in Clancy, as well as detailed information about the military, which I’d thought would be my career path at the time.
They were the sort of books that lent themselves perfectly to a huge media empire of weapon-fetishizing, brainless video games, movies (though I will excuse The Hunt For Red October, since it is great), and TV shows, whose narrative focus seemed to be on reflexive, unexamined patriotism and not much else. Despite being enormously long books, there never seemed to be enough room for characters to have a lot of depth.
Anyway. I mention all this to highlight the fact that Jack Ryan is extremely true to its subject matter, which is to say that it wastes the time of some very good actors by not giving them very much to do. Jon Krasinski brings a degree of his down-to-earth charm to the titular role, on the rare occasions that the script gives him an opportunity to do so instead of constantly yoking him to a generalized “gee, I don’t like terrorism,” motivation, just as Wendell Pierce gets an occasional moment to deploy some of his grouchy intensity. The backstories of the villains are explored in some detail, but their narrative is all over the place, and, in the end, they wind up as the evil savages that the script requires them to be. Ancillary characters all tend to conform to national, gender-based or other stereotypes. It’s a Clancy joint, all right.
There’s a moment about 3/4ths of the way through the series when we’re exposed to a slightly more thoughtful, internationalist point of view about the phenomenon of terrorism and poverty. “Geography is destiny, my friend,” harrumphs a loathsome, exploitative Turkish pimp. The fact that just about the only nuanced take on the whole situation comes from such a despicable character tells you something about the people who made Jack Ryan.
A note from Amazon’s helpful X-Ray feature, which I never remember to turn off, explains Jack Ryan’s point of view more clearly:
Given this factoid, I suppose the show can partially be excused on the basis that the people producing it are clearly the dumbest motherfuckers alive. It’s a spy agency. How the fuck do you expect it not to be unscrupulous and shadowy? Have you ever read literally any book about the CIA that the CIA itself (or, I suppose, Tom Clancy) didn’t publish?
Another classic Clancy-ish highlight is the truly bizarre side plot with a disaffected drone pilot, who, among other things, winds up having sex with a woman whose husband likes to watch (Clancy was usually good for at least one jarringly sexual scene per book, and had the classic conservative trait of being simultaneously titillated and horrified by perceived moral decay in Western society), winning a brick of cash in a deeply weird gambling scene, and buying his way out of his moral guilt by slipping over to Afghanistan and handing a relative of one of his victims said brick of cash. See, capitalism fixes everything.
A host of other small details about the show annoy me – Syrian refugee camps are depicted as “really, not that bad,” it’s confusing about the villain’s ultimate motivation, and there are a couple startling moments of tradecraft ignorance that even I could spot.
For all that, for all the moral emptiness and stereotyping and crashing predictability, Jack Ryan still manages to be fairly watchable, or at least watchable enough to make me finish the whole thing. The pacing is tight and expert, action scenes are gripping. Again, it’s true to the source material.
The subplot with the bad guy’s wife and kids escaping from his clutches even manages to capture one of Clancy’s few good tendencies as a writer – he could fall in love with his characters a little, which was always an occasionally charming thing about his style. You know, let’s even go out on a limb and praise him for it – the guy knew how to give his characters a happy ending without it feeling too unearned.
Still, ultimately, this is a bad show. It’s is the Netflix MCU for trash-ass right-wingers – both series bring a new nuance and thoughtfulness to the subject matter, but they both follow the formats very closely. The Marvel stuff is cheesy and melodramatic but somehow (mostly) works, because the comics they’re based on are ultimately honest and well-intentioned, with a genuine moral center. Jack Ryan is an empty power fantasy with a lot of fine filigree in the details, just like a Tom Clancy book. It’s self-serving, conformative, and has very, very few thoughts about what the fine detail of weaponry and tradecraft implies about the subject matter. Its political point of view is straight out of the looniest parts of the Pentagon and the House Armed Services Committee. I’m genuinely sort of uncomfortable with how watchable I find it. It’s the definition of a guilty pleasure, sort of like this decade’s 24, as we forgive its moral emptiness, lame characterization and partially coded fascism for its sheer, artless energy. It’s ham-handed, cheesy, but propulsive. To continue the MCU parallel, it brings a dignity and realism that its printed ancestor sometimes lacked. To break it, Marvel’s comics deserved such a reification. Tom Clancy’s fanfares for the armchair general didn’t.