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'Rubicon' -- AMC's march to quality TV continues

The return of "Mad Men" last week already makes AMC the place to go Sunday nights for the finest drama on television this summer.

This Sunday, comes a second reason to choose this cable channel with the two-hour debut of "Rubicon," a richly-textured conspiracy thriller produced by three-time Peabody-Award-winner Henry Bromell, a writer well known to Baltimore audiences from the years when he lived and worked here as an executive producer of "Homicide: Life on the Street," NBC's ode to murder, grit and quality TV in Charm City.

Bromell's new AMC series will remind older viewers in a very good way of the surge of razor-edged feature films like "Parallax View," "The Conversation," and "Three Days of the Condor" that arose in response to Watergate and the inglorious final days of the American experience in Vietnam in the 1970s. Younger viewers are going to find an engaging team of smart, complicated and intense twenty-and-thirtysomething intelligence analysts led by James Badge Dale ("The Pacific") as Will Travers.

Add the seasoned talents of Miranda Richardson to the cast of a drama that speaks directly to the paranoia of post- 9/11 America as it explores an intelligence apparatus much like the one chronicled recently in The Washington Post, and you have both entertainment that will keep you engaged and enough social relevance to make your brain rattle just a bit as the final credits roll.

"My dad worked for the CIA for something like 25 years," Bromell said in an interview this week by way of starting to explain where the idea for the series came from.

The 62-year-old author revisited some of that psychic terrain in 2001 in "Little America," a widely acclaimed novel published by Knopf told from the point of view of an adult son of CIA officer who had been heavily involved in operations in the Middle East in the 1950s — as Bromell's father was. Bromell spent much of his childhood "overseas," at his father's postings, he says.

"The focus has always been on the guys in operations, the 'spies' and the 'deep cover' and all that – the guys people like John Kennedy were so interested in," Bromell says. "And nobody ever thought much about the analyst guys, of which there were a lot more – these nerdy, smart, behind-the-scenes guys."

But after 9/11, that "sort of shifted," he says. "The analysts even took on a certain romance -- with us starting to think these guys are going to be the ones who save our heads."

As Bromell sees it, American intelligence officials "knew who the bad guys were" prior to 9/11.

"We could target them. We could look at photos and say, 'What's that bump in the desert outside Tehran.'" He explains, referring to what an encampment of insurgents or a battery of weapons might look like on a satellite photo.

"But now, you have to map the whole world, and then you have to solve the puzzle of what the connection might be between a bartender in London with a babysitter in Beirut – and a businessman in Jakarta. And that's kind of a mind boggling job. How do you do that job? And if they fail in that job, something horrible happens like 9/11. That's what anchors the series."

That, and one of the analysts "teasing out a conspiracy" within their own workplace, which involves the violent death of a mentor to one of the young analysts, says the one-time resident of Baltimore's Henderson's Wharf, who so liked living in the area that in 1996 he created a drama titled "Falls Road."

(The series, which would have been filmed in Baltimore, featured a professional couple who drove the north-south corridor each day from their home in the suburbs to jobs as a homicide detective and EMS worker in the city. NBC made the hour long pilot episode, but when it did not go to series, the writer-producer moved to Los Angeles.)

"I loved living in Baltimore and working on 'Homicide,' he says. "I loved the way people in Baltimore adopted 'Homicide.' It was their show and it was like the Orioles or something – of all things, they embraced this gritty, hand-held show about murder as their own. I loved it."

Bromell also acknowledges his love of "those wonderful movies" of the 1970s, like "All the President's Men" and "The Parallax View," and the influence they have on "Rubicon."

"The heroes are all small figures dwarfed by overwhelming corporate fascist architecture," he says on a roll that will end with him reciting bits of the final dialogue in "Three Days of the Condor" verbatim. "They're afraid and paranoid of the collusion between politics and corporations that [President Dwight] Eisenhower warned us about [when he left office in 1961]."

He feels there's a "different but similar zeitgeist today," with "all kinds of people worried about big government."

"You see some of that in the Tea Party," Bromell says. "But it doesn't matter who you talk to, from working class people to doctors and lawyers, people are convinced there are secret things going on that we don't know about – things over which we have no control… And that's part of what the series tries to address."

Bromell is right about the collective jitters and mistrust of government today. NBC is banking big this fall on a conspiracy thriller titled "The Event." If "Rubicon" and/or "The Event" succeed, look for more to follow. ("Rubicon" has a 13-episode first season commitment from AMC, which is a major one by the standards of basic cable.)

And even a cursory sampling of the conversations on talk radio, 24/7 cable TV or the comments sections of blogs on politics and culture will yield a wealth of evidence as to how deep these feelings of fear, paranoia and insecurity run.

As for the title of his series, the Amherst College graduate puts it this way.

"As you may remember from you Latin classes," Bromell writes in a letter to critics, "the Rubicon is a river in northern Italy that marked the closest point to Rome that any Roman legion was allowed to venture. The Roman Senate feared the day a general might lead his troops across the Rubicon and take the Republic for his own."

After explaining how Caesar did just that in 49 B.C., Bromell continues: "Rubicon was born out of the belief that we in the United States could wake up one day soon and find our democracy gone, not vanquished by an army, but by an almost invisible collusion between business and government. I know I'm not the only one who feels helpless and powerless in the face of this collusion."

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"Rubicon" debuts with a two-hour episode at 8 p.m. Sunday on AMC. It airs at 9 p.m. Sundays thereafter.

"Rubicon" debuts with a two-hour episode at 8 p.m. Sunday on AMC. It airs at 9 p.m. Sundays thereafter.

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