Created by Tim Kring (Heroes), USA’s Treadstone has been marketed as a Jason Bourne spinoff. Judging by its first four episodes, its intent is to harp on a pair of particular elements from the Bourne films to the point of redundancy.
Compared to the unceasing Mission: Impossible sequels, Matt Damon’s Bourne is the more self-serious of the super spy franchises. This series based on those films does its best to lift and transfer that tone from feature to television. The problem is the episodes are structured, paced, and performed like television, not like film. In an age when more and more series—limited or multi-season—are made to masquerade as chapters in one very long motion picture, there’s still a tendency to fall into traditional TV’s traps. That’s not a bad thing, depending on the objective. What’s the objective here? It’s not entirely clear through four episodes, though the sheer brutality of the combat, in concert with its characters’ proclivity for R-rated language, suggests Kring and company were out to make a show for cinephiles rather than CBS procedural denizens.
Treadstone’s driving force is its action. We’re not getting the manic energy of the Paul Greengrass-directed sequences or set pieces, but we’re taken on a ride from one moment to the next, each of which containing a fight or chase or building towards a fight or chase. Which is where the redundancies come in. The Bourne Identity’s story shift comes in the moment its titular protagonist realizes he has dormant physical instincts that make him lethal in a hand-to-hand scrap, no matter the opponent. How he can do these things, who he is, and who made him that way, are the questions that set the film in motion. Treadstone is not one protagonist’s story; it’s many. With its ensemble format, the show is able to re-use these beats again and again. We have multiple characters “waking up,” so to speak, accessing a previously unknown martial artistry lurking somewhere within, and embarking on a quest of self-discovery. Usually that quest involves killing a lot of people.
Like the films, CIA suits closely monitor the so-called “assets” as they wake and latch onto certain memories that make them a danger to the world around them. In the past, a black ops initiative called Treadstone was put in place but, we’re told, that initiative was shut down. However, Treadstone was bigger than they thought, says the ubiquitous Michael Gaston, here playing CIA higher-up, Dan Levine. Together with Michelle Forbes’ Elen Becker, the CIA must determine who is waking up these alleged assets, how they’re doing it, and what their missions are.
Prior to these watershed moments, triggered by a rendition of the nursery rhyme, “Frère Jacques,” the assets were living seemingly normal lives.
In Alaska, there’s Doug McKenna, played by Brian J. Smith, who works as an oil rigger until he and his peers are laid off. An encounter with a vaguely familiar woman in a bar results in a furniture-smashing fight that leaves a trio of Russians (who are taking their jobs) out of commission. His journey begins, the mystery only deepening each time we see him.
In North Korea, piano instructor Soyun Pak, played by South Korean actress Hyo-Joo Han, experiences a similar awakening. Living in an apartment with her husband and their young son in a country under intense military presence akin to martial law, Soyun is soon performing inexplicable physical feats. The tension in this storyline is palpable from the outset. The people here live in perpetual fear—even (or especially) Soyun’s husband, an electrical systems specialist for the military. It’s never spoken, but the sense is that one false move on his part could lead to some devastating consequences.
Beyond these two, there’s Tracy Ifeachor’s Tara Coleman, a journalist ousted for her refusal to keep mum about a certain Russian plot that I’ll keep mum about in the interest of allowing the show to disclose its own details. But Tara’s story connects to that of other characters’. She also gets to take part in a pulse-pounding car chase through the streets of Paris.
Bookended in the pilot, and an ongoing arc through the series, is what’s unfolding in 1973 Berlin. Treadstone begins its tale here, where we’re introduced to a man named John, played by Jeremy Irvine, a test subject in Russian captivity amid the throes of the Cold War. John is our first Bourne-type, a “Cicada,” whose mind has been messed with, but whose combat prowess is unmatched.
And fisticuffs is the other element of the show that takes a page out of the Bourne playbook, imitating its style—to a degree—and finding its way to the screen several times per episode. With quick cutting in the vein of Greengrass’ style, the inspiration is clear. But Treadstone improves upon Bourne, choreographically speaking, in that the landing of the punches and kicks is mostly visible to the eye of the viewer. The blows are bone crunching, each one sounding like major damage has been done. One could argue the fights are too many, or too implausible, but these sequences are the most absorbing bits in an altogether humorless series of high stakes and looming threats aplenty.
Treadstone falters most in its structuring. Because we’re in an ensemble, the episodes spend no more than two or three minutes (sometimes fewer) with any one character, before jumping out of the scene for an update on someone else. Sometimes it revisits the scene it’s just left, which had no appropriate resolution. This device is all too common in episodic television, though it’s something shows of the highest quality are rarely guilty of. Mindhunter or The Night Of, for instance, let every scene play out to their natural conclusions before moving on to check in on another player in the story. If this show were more confident in its ability to grip an audience, its scenes would likely take their time, building toward strong dramatic beats or the revelation of new information. Whether or not scene brevity is what was written on the page, the show has been edited targeting the short attention span demographic, much like the vast majority of modern entertainment. This sort of pacing grows tiresome when we’re hoping to engage in a character’s conflict.
The standout performances in a show that’s not too interested in that sort of thing are Tess Haubrich, who plays Samantha McKenna, and German-born Gabrielle Scharnitzky. Their dialogue may be stilted at times, but the cast does its best to make it work. This just isn’t an actors’ show.
Shortcomings aside, the series’ strengths slightly outweigh its clichés—like Russian villains and world-altering information stored on a flash drive. For action junkies and espionage aficionados alike, Treadstone appears primed to please, as it slowly peels back the layers of its narrative, which is the only thing it does at a snail’s pace. It’s a visually stimulating series that looks to have filmed in many locations around the world, leaving viewers with curiosities aroused just enough to keep tuning in for more if only for the fights.
Grade: ★★★ Fair