NBC’s last-minute decision to append American to the title of their new series, previously known as Odyssey, suggests a cynicism befitting the drama. Tempering any literary associations for purely jingoistic ones, the change positions the series as a successor to the year’s other epic of ideological murk, the surprise blockbuster American Sniper. Like Clint Eastwood’s film, American Odyssey basks in the heroics of individual soldiers while casting an ambivalent gaze toward the military-industrial complex to which they’re beholden. The show aspires toward ideological complexity, but its simplistic notions of good and evil undermine those ambitions. That’s why NBC can so easily spin a series that ostensibly critiques U.S. foreign policy as a paean to patriotism; the caricatured businessmen and mercenaries who constitute the show’s most insidious threats aren’t embodiments of recognizable dangers, but hackneyed stereotypes imported wholesale from the most paranoid of conspiracy thrillers, devoid of any meaningful real-world resonance.
Described by NBC as a Traffic-like narrative of geopolitical intrigue, the series centers on a network of characters whose storylines parallel one another and occasionally intersect. The central figure is Sgt. Odelle Ballard (Anna Friel), a Special Forces officer who, after her team kills al-Qaeda’s top commander, unwittingly discovers evidence that a major American corporation has been funding rebel insurgents. Before her team can be extracted from Mali, however, the members are killed by mercenaries working for a military contractor reminiscent of Blackwater, and only Ballard escapes. Her attempt to return home to America, even as the U.S. military avows that she’s dead, constitutes the show’s titular odyssey, and if the subplot is at all interesting, it’s for the way Friel commands the screen in a way her co-stars don’t. (Running alongside her narrative are storylines involving two other crusaders: Peter Facinelli’s Peter Decker, a corporate lawyer investigating the firm that helped fund the insurgents, and Jake Robinson’s Harrison Walters, an activist leader for a newly invigorated Occupy movement who comes across evidence that Ballard may still be alive.)
American Odyssey is ripped straight from the headlines…of 2011. Its dated subject matter wouldn’t be a problem if the series were able to mobilize it to interesting ends, but despite its networked structure, the show’s storytelling methods are just as outmoded. Continually mistaking convolution for complexity, the series uses its expansive runtime not to flesh out the intricacies of the international conspiracy it depicts or the characters embroiled in it, but to stall its protagonists’ respective quests with the most banal impediments imaginable. It’s telling that by the end of the second episode, the viewer essentially knows the entirety of the truth the protagonists are stumbling toward; it isn’t the “truth” that’s complex, but the narrative contortions that prevent the characters from uncovering it. And those contortions require these supposedly shrewd individuals to behave in the most dim-witted fashion, confiding secrets to near-strangers and leaving crucial pieces of evidence unattended.
In one excruciating scene, Walters prepares to disseminate an email that supposedly proves Ballard is still alive. Once the missive is finally forwarded to his own inbox, he filibusters to a crowd of enthused onlookers in Zuccotti Park: “This movement is about finding and telling the truth.” As the crowd reaches a fever pitch, he presses a button to circulate the email to his devoted followers, never having bothered to actually open it himself. Unsurprisingly, the contents turn out to be bogus, nothing more than a kitten GIF, and Walters is left with egg on his face. It’s a terrible set piece, but it sums up the series nicely: a succession of stalling tactics aimed toward building excitement for revelations that inevitably land with a thud. American Odyssey wants to offer a critique of the power wielded by institutions, but unlike the best dramas whose structure it apes, the show’s storylines aren’t strands in an intricate mosaic; they’re loose threads dangling from a droopy sweater—unnecessary, cumbersome, and just waiting to be snipped.