NEW YORK - If you let it, "Rubicon" will get in your head. It quietly haunts you with its dark possibilities. It lulls you while it keeps you on edge. It's a scrumptious tease, a seductive conspiracy thriller that serves up far more questions than answers (in early episodes, anyway).
Just one thing is certain on "Rubicon," which premieres 8 tonight on AMC: The firm resolve of Will Travers to get to the root of the mystery.
This mystery is dwarfing his everyday, on-the-job mysteries. Played by series star James Badge Dale, Will is an analyst at the American Policy Institute, a federal agency established to evaluate global intelligence and share its conclusions with other agencies that, even in a murky post-9/11 world, still resist helping one other.
Will, like his fellow analysts, pores over stacks of daily "intake." Locked down in the API bunker in lower Manhattan, he trolls for embedded patterns in the intel that, one way or another, could be signaling a security threat.
This is a whiz kid who can find a link between the words "bicameral," "Fillmore," "Marshall" and "Marsilea quadrifolia" (that is, a four-leaf clover, which looms as a sinister talisman). Will - restless, brooding, yet oddly adorable - is burdened by connections he sees everywhere, even as he lives in a state of disconnectedness. No wonder he's feeling burned out.
"It's my business - our business - to tell people what to think," he laments to a colleague. "And the truth is, I have no idea what to think anymore."
Bad enough. But then a personal tragedy forces him to face the prospect a conspiracy festers within his own government, his own agency. Who can he trust now? Is his own life in danger?
"Rubicon" makes paranoia palpable. The series pilot (currently online at AMC's website) and the second episode, also airing tonight, put you inside Will's tormented head, then compound your angst with other scenes riddled with intrigue.
I love "Rubicon" for the way it seized my attention on a level distinct from my understanding of it. Based on the first four episodes furnished for preview, I liken it to a song I can't get out of my head. And, like a favorite song, I've been playing it over and over: I have binged on the episodes, helplessly joining Will on his quest and hoping with each viewing I'll extract a fresh clue here or there.
Will's three analyst teammates - like him, ordinary people, although endowed with more brains and quirks than most - are played by Dallas Roberts, Christopher Evan Welch and Lauren Hodges. Jessica Collins plays his winsome assistant. Arliss Howard is his icy boss. Miranda Richardson plays a well-to-do widow whose suicidal husband left behind lots of secrets.
"Rubicon" is filmed on location in New York but, with its muted tones and anonymous look, feels unfamiliar. API headquarters - occupying a nondescript building down on South Street - offer glimpses out its windows of the East River and speeding traffic on FDR Drive. But "Rubicon" occupies an otherworld with few recognizable reference points.
It echoes the high-stakes challenge of the API analysts since 9/11: to spot danger on a global landscape that's denied familiar landmarks.
"Instead of scouring sites where they know aggressors could be found - like, what's that big mound outside Tehran? - now they've got to map the whole world and find the connections, without there being a narrative they already know," says Henry Bromell, "Rubicon" executive producer.
Then, for it to serve any purpose, their analysis must be heeded by the agency that gets it.
Heartsick, a colleague of Will's watches TV coverage of a bloody uprising in Nigeria.
"We warned everyone that this was going to happen," he says. "We laid out options. What's the point? No one listens."
"Sometimes, they do," Will replies listlessly. "Sometimes, they don't."
"Rubicon" is AMC's third original drama series, joining triumphant hits "Mad Men" (airing 10 tonight) and "Breaking Bad."
"I just hope our show, in its way, is as strong," says Bromell, an Emmy- and Peabody-winning producer-writer whose roster of successes includes "Brotherhood," "Chicago Hope," "Homicide: Life on the Street" and "I'll Fly Away."
Bromell has personal insight to lend the show. He grew up in the 1950s the son of a CIA officer stationed throughout the Middle East.
"Rubicon" also draws from such mid-1970s political conspiracy thrillers as "The Conversation," "The Parallax View," "Three Days of the Condor" and "All the President's Men," all of which, says Bromell, were required viewing for his fellow "Rubicon" writers.
Those films were sparked by Watergate and a nation divided over the Vietnam War.
"People really, really didn't trust the government then," says Bromell. "There's the same feeling today, for different reasons."