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Jan Thijs/Potomac River Productions Inc./Amazon Studios

John Krasinski
Jan Thijs/Potomac River Productions Inc./Amazon Studios

Television

A new and different Jack

PC signaling and bad language mar Amazon’s interesting take on Jack Ryan

These days, when nearly every film or scripted series wears its political affiliation on its sleeve, it’s fascinating to come across one that seems to defy immediate categorization.

Amazon’s reboot of Jack Ryan would have made headlines even if it hadn’t become the latest partisan Rorschach test. Along with Tom Clancy’s gold-plated name, the online retailer spent massive sums to create a small-screen reboot that puts the production value of 24 and Homeland to shame. But the authentic locations and stunning set design aren’t grabbing attention nearly as much as its muddled political messaging.

In the conservative journal National Review, Kyle Smith says this new Jack Ryan sounds more like “a Bernie Sanders volunteer who majored in Peace Studies at Hampshire College” than a secret agent. Pointing out scenes that suggest the French are to blame for terrorist attacks within their country, he asserts the showrunners do everything to make this Jack Ryan more palatable to left-leaning millennials except “give [him] a hankering for avocado toast.”

On the other side of the aisle, Vanity Fair calls the show a “patriotic nightmare” and chides the plot for being based on the “unquestioned notion that American-military might—the best-funded killing infrastructure in human history—is helping to save the world.” And that’s even before the review gets to the part about Jack Ryan’s “white male entitlement” presenting a “case study in toxic narratives.”

What’s that verse about being neither hot nor cold?

The funny thing is, both critics have a point. Jack Ryan is Tom Clancy’s most famed creation, and no author was ever a greater champion of American interventionism. If Amazon wasn’t comfortable with that, best not pick him up at all. Because, as National Review observes, the tacked-in PC-signaling, like making Ryan’s superior Muslim and having a character voice a stereotypically racist argument against immigration, feels cheap rather than organic. And it isn’t enough to disguise the worldview of the original source material.

To their complaints I’d add that the show works overtime to prove it’s part of the edgy new club of prestige cable and streaming dramas, giving Ryan a far fouler mouth than he ever had in the movies and digressing to a couple of ridiculously unnecessary sex scenes.

It’s a bit of a shame, because whenever the show stops running around half-apologizing for its existence and trying to prove it’s cool kid cred with F-bombs, it actually works. Particularly effective is the family drama that plays out in the terrorist leader’s home and the flashbacks that trace his rise to power.

Also surprisingly effective: John Krasinski’s beta male approach to the character. It’s a markedly different Jack Ryan from the ones that Harrison Ford, Alec Baldwin, and Chris Pine gave us, and that’s a good thing. It truly is as if Jim Halpert from The Office suddenly ended up behind a desk at the CIA instead of Dunder Mifflin.

No other Jack Ryan has made us smile so much. It almost makes you wish that in the already commissioned Season 2, Dwight Shrute would get a job as a CIA analyst too. Because when the plot finally starts firing around Episode 4, we fully believe good ol’ Jim could rise to the occasion to save the world and still have time for a practical joke or two.

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Patrick Harbron/Hulu

Lynskey (left) and Holland
Patrick Harbron/Hulu

Television

Castle Rock

Castle Rock straddles the psychological-supernatural fence

Shawshank State Prison hides an unregistered inmate.

“Warden Lacy told me the devil was a boy, and Old Dale caught him and locked him in a box.” Thus retired sheriff Alan Pangborn (Scott Glenn) warns Shawshank’s new warden, who has replaced Lacy (Terry O’Quinn), recently dead by suicide.

Yes, it’s that Shawshank: Hulu’s popular new series Castle Rock (rated TV-MA for occasional foul language and scenes of violence) borrows many of horror-fiction master Stephen King’s settings and characters. Viewers have taken a shining to a complex mystery that, true to King, straddles the psychological-supernatural fence, even if it explores (as of Episode 5) no serious worldview questions. Executive producer J.J. Abrams sustains a good riddle through flashbacks, high-budget visuals, and a top-notch cast.

The story revolves around Henry Deaver (André Holland), an attorney for Texas death-row inmates who returns to his Maine hometown after receiving a cryptic call from someone inside Shawshank prison. Most Castle Rock residents aren’t happy to see Deaver, though, and that’s not because he’s an African-American in the “lily-white” town: They’ve long suspected him in the death of his adoptive father 25 years earlier. As a preteen, Deaver disappeared for 11 days in the dead of winter, but returned without a trace of hypothermia. At the same time, his adoptive father, a local pastor and Shawshank chaplain, suffered a serious injury and died.

Yet it seems everyone in town is hiding something. Each episode floats more information about increasingly puzzling characters. Realtor Molly Strand (Melanie Lynskey) has an unusual psychic connection to Deaver. Deaver’s adoptive mother (Sissy Spacek) is shacking up with Pangborn. And Lacy’s captive, now a young man (Bill Skarsgård), has spent years locked inside a bear cage in an unused wing of the prison.

Castle Rock portrays Christianity—including believers and Scripture—as quaint but apparently no match for evil. If the “boy” is the devil, then, what can be done?

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Netflix

Amybeth McNulty as Anne Shirley
Netflix

Television

Anne with an agenda

Anne with an E hijacks a children’s classic as a vehicle for liberal values and 21st-century activism

Let’s get one thing straight: Extrapolating on and even profiting from a classic isn’t new. It isn’t even necessarily a bad thing. Michael Landon did it with Little House on the Prairie, and he’s practically a national hero.

Neither is including a gay character in a historical drama: Downton Abbey did it with the nuanced character of Thomas Barrow, and in the end, we were all rooting for him to rejoin the downstairs staff.

Season 1 of CBC and Netflix’s Anne with an E was gritty, in many ways departing big-time from the book, but it still made pretty good television. Season 2, though, feels as if it were written by a different team of writers, brought in mostly to drive buzz about the show.

It’s hard to list comprehensively every modern issue this season touches on. There’s school bullying, bullying of homosexuals, guns in the classroom, teenage suicide, racism (both overt and via microaggression), white fragility, and the definition of marriage. Two more topics top it off: consent for vaginal checks during birth, and prejudice against people who never marry.

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