American Odyssey, which recently added the “American” to its title, succeeds not by redefining the international conspiracy genre, or bringing anything particularly avant-garde to its telling of military malfeasance, but in reverting back to the idea of White Hats and Black Hats. In a TV landscape filled with muddled motivations, NBC’s American Odyssey feels — at least, at its start — like a saga that’s easy to root for.
That sensibility is built into the show’s very landscape, as things begin to take off immediately after an American Special Forces team brings down Al Qaeda’s top commander. The group’s lone female member, Odelle Ballard (the always likable Anna Friel), notices something peculiar with the records kept at the bunker, in that there is a paper trail leading back to a major American corporation. After securing the data on a flash drive, the unit is attacked, and reportedly killed.
Back home, though, there’s an Occupy movement that refuses to believe the attack was by jihadists, and instead aim to prove (correctly) that it was a coordinated attack and coverup by the military. The show smartly integrates technology into the question of Odelle’s survival, after a “hacktivist,” Bob (Nate Mooney, who gives off some serious Steve Buscemi vibes), finds evidence that she’s alive thanks to an SOS email she sent after the attack. Later, Odelle is able to upload a photo of herself as she makes her escape (even jihadists have iPhones), further fueling a fire that the military is trying hard to suppress domestically.
The key component to any bog standard conspiracy though is an evil corporation, for whom a former U.S. Attorney named Peter (Peter Facinelli) — a man with a strong conscience and nose for bullshit — now works. His public suspicions lead to his family being threatened and plenty of other violence, but unfortunately, his arc is also the weakest, essentially existing as a way to move the plot forward on the homefront, and prove (as is hammered in in all of the major plots) that you just can’t find honest confidents these days.
American Odyssey, comes from The Following‘s Adam Armus and Kay Foster, and Grey’s Anatomy‘s Peter Horton, has been likened it to the film Traffic, and its moving parts do run parallel to one another, though most of those turns are not that surprising. What the show does really well, though, is create a palpable tension thanks to its easily detestable villain: private military contractor group Osela (essentially, Blackwater). Mercs plus an evil corporation? There is no setup necessary. Bring ‘em down!
Despite the broadness and obvious linear telling (he did this, so that happened), the series is fast-paced and gritty, and each of the main storylines have subplots with narrative potential. Odelle is helped by a young tribal boy, Aslam (Omar Ghazaoui) who both saves her and tries to sell her out, and their wary dynamic creates an exceptionally interesting layer to her attempts at survival. Trustfund-baby protestor Harrison Walter (Jake Robinson) also brings a lot of earnest charm to the grassroots side of the fight, and their desire to find the truth about Odelle and her company. Peter’s daughter is an avid fan of a female Greek presidential candidate (to whom Peter has ties), who she believes will “change the world.” Or is she part of the problem?
Shot on location in Morocco, American Odyssey‘s style is almost all shaky-cam and furtive jump cuts, but it feels like a movie. Seeing the heroes all suffer mishaps and near-misses while the unholy alliance of a greedy corporation and military contractors grows stronger and more impenetrable is the right kind of frustrating. At the heart of the story, though, is Odelle, and her dogged belief that her military superiors will help her investigate the truth and get her back to her family, if only she can tell them where she is. The crushing truth is they don’t care. But to American Odyssey‘s gain, we do.
Rating: ★★★ Good — Proceed with cautious optimism
American Odyssey premieres Sunday, April 5th at 10 p.m. on NBC