Conspiracy thriller ‘Rubicon’ challenges viewers

This must be what it feels like to be a cast member on “Jersey Shore.”

No, not that near constant burning sensation caused by either the tanning bed or something far more sinister. It’s that state common among the show’s self-proclaimed “guidos and guidettes” — Snooki, Sammi, Scritti Politti, the whole gang — of not quite being able to comprehend the world around them.

I’ve come to call my condition adult onset stupidity.

It has been creeping up on me for the past few years — Howie Mandel tried a half-dozen times to explain “Deal or No Deal” to me before it aired, and I just couldn’t understand the concept — but it never took hold until this past weekend when I went to see the mind-trippy “Inception” in between watching the first four episodes of the brain-crampingly twisty conspiracy thriller “Rubicon” (back-to-back episodes air at 8 p.m. today, AMC).

I’ve always been drawn to challenging TV. The “Rashomon”-style varying perspectives of “Boomtown”? Sure. The real-time concept of “24”? Absolutely. The whatever it was that was going on for six seasons on “Lost”? Bring it on. But “Rubicon” seems to be geared toward viewers who found “Lost” to be too straightforward and accessible. Both of them.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. “ER” never pandered, never explained its complex medical jargon, and viewers eventually caught on. I’m hoping for the same thing with “Rubicon,” but so far it’s eliciting the same reaction as “Inception”: I can tell it’s wildly original and terrifically made, I just don’t have the slightest clue what’s going on.

Set in the American Policy Institute — a fictional clearinghouse for all the nation’s espionage — “Rubicon” focuses on intelligence analyst Will Travers (James Badge Dale), who, we’re told, is “skilled in pattern recognition, systems analysis and emergence theories.”

How skilled? One of his colleagues has been puzzling over something called the “Malaysian cipher,” trying to figure out what four cities — Seville, Larnaca, Dubrovnik and Ajaccio — have in common. Within seconds, Travers is able to rattle off the following: “They were all part of the Roman Empire. They all have paleaectic Mediterranean rain forests (and) a chaparral biome. They’re all in countries that spend less than 5 percent of their GDP on the military.”

Now, I was a four-year starter and lettered as a member of my high school’s academic team — yes, really — and I still had to get one of “Rubicon’s” publicists to track down a copy of the script to fill me in on a couple of those words. And of those four cities, I’d never even heard of two, although I would have bet good money that at least one of them was part of Middle-earth.

But that’s just one example of how “Rubicon,” which was inspired by political thrillers ranging from “All the President’s Men” to “The Conversation,” doesn’t waste time coddling viewers.

The drama has fashioned a world full of mystery and intrigue in which Travers spends so much time looking over his shoulder he’s going to need a chiropractor, and even the act of placing a pair of shoes outside a hotel room to be shined carries with it a sense of foreboding.

“Rubicon” is a serious show about serious themes. Even the show’s color palette is serious, featuring quite possibly the largest collection of earth tones ever assembled outside a Lands’ End catalog.

Travers’ wife and child were killed in the attacks on the World Trade Center, and he has never fully recovered, instead choosing to bury himself in cracking his job’s codes to the point that he forgets his own birthday. But, then, it must be tough to relax when there are clues to some sort of shadowy conspiracy lurking around every corner.

Travers uncovers the same messages hidden inside the crossword puzzles of several major newspapers. He stumbles upon a series of 27 10-digit numbers, one set for each World Series the Yankees have won, that, by way of historic baseball dates, lead to a group of names. And when he finds a sheet of paper marked with 21 three-letter clusters, it’s described as a “simple” code designed to direct the recipient to particular letters in a certain book.

Even though it’s so far over my head I’d need a weather balloon to grasp it, I’m going to stick with “Rubicon” as a testament to AMC’s greatness. The cable channel has just two scripted series, “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men,” and both of them were nominated for best drama and combined for 22 other nominations at next month’s Emmys.

As the cryptic series points out, every code has a key. I just hope I’m still bright enough to one day decipher “Rubicon.”

Christopher Lawrence’s Life on the Couch column appears on Sundays. E-mail him at clawrence@ reviewjournal.com.

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