Olivia Munn was on Late Night with Seth Meyers the other night. She was very charming and told funny stories about her mom and her family. Thing is, she was there to promote a new TV series in which she stars, and she barely mentioned it.
The show is The Rook (starts Sunday, 8 p.m. on the STARZ linear channel, and on-demand on Crave). It’s the oddest thing. When I saw the opening episode back in February at the TV Critics press tour, I liked it a lot. Then I got to see more episodes and the thing just turned into a muddle of the espionage and paranormal genres.
It’s a very interesting mess, mind you. What makes it go awry is the awkward intrusion of the paranormal, monsters, people with superpowers and the rather constrained use of special effects, a technique that, every now and then, explodes into the sudden overuse of garish effects. It’s not easy to make a compelling TV drama about people with superpowers or special abilities. (Look what happened to Heroes and Sense8.) What works is either a fantasy-niche show with limited appeal (those abound) or it’s a down-to-earth drama about special powers and how that has an impact on ordinary people in mundane life.
What happens in The Rook starts off promisingly. A woman, Myfanwy Thomas (Emma Greenwell), wakes up by the River Thames surrounded by dead bodies wearing plastic gloves and dead vultures. She has no memory of who she is or what happened to her. This part is beautifully made and compelling – a richly detailed portrait of a spooky London, all nooks and crannies of danger or perversion. It’s gorgeous, contemporary noir.
As we follow Myfanwy, it turns out she left instructions for herself in case something terrible happened and she wound up with amnesia. It also turns out that she’s what’s called a "Rook,” a high-ranking member of something called the Checquy – a very secret part of British Intelligence made up of people with superpowers, and they handle cases that involve people with Extreme Variant Abilities (called EVAs), sometimes recruiting them into intelligence work, and they also do battle against the human trafficking of EVAs.
Got that? Yes it’s a muddle. What could be an excellent espionage thriller, with a woman remaking her life at its centre, is torn to shreds by the insertion of flim-flammery about special powers and paranormal activity. There’s a subplot about Britain having been invaded by bad EVAs on the orders of some mad Belgian scientist, or something. It’s infuriatingly obscure.
There is also the matter of the central character. Clearly the novels on which the series is based put emphasis on Myfanwy reinventing herself after her memory is erased. This is a feminist theme about a woman being made free of her past. Here, Myfanwy spends a lot of time worried – Greenwell is excellent – and a bit scared of her own powers. Add to all this the insistence by the show’s producers, and some cast, that “superpowers” is the wrong term to describe the ability of the characters, and you’ve got an even bigger mess. We’re supposed to use the term Extreme Variant Abilities, apparently.
As for Munn, her character doesn’t really fit seamlessly into the already confusing storyline. She represents the U.S. equivalent of the Checquy and is in London on a mission to sort out something or other. But actually to find her former lover. Mostly her character is patronized or duped by her British counterparts. Munn can be a compelling actor, bringing a visceral human quality to even sci-fi roles, but here she is outclassed by the small army of veteran British actors such as Joely Richardson and Adrian Lester, who plays the battling bosses of The Checquy.
By all means, watch the opening episode of The Rook. It’s a beautifully made, neo-noir espionage thriller. But if you plan to stick with it, the series will lead you down strange and infuriating paths and you might feel swindled. Pity.
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