It turns out there are, in fact, limits to John Krasinski’s charms.
Or rather with Amazon’s splashy, expensive and perfectly watchable Jack Ryan series; the problem is that, for once, Krasinski is charmless.
He’s not bad in the new series. He’s merely fine taking the reins of Tom Clancy’s most iconic character from Chris Pine, Ben Affleck, Alec Baldwin, and, of course, Harrison Ford before him. He’s instantly likable. Fun to watch, even—just like the series. Of course he is, and of course it is. It’s John Krasinski doing Jack Ryan. And that’s the problem, if you could even call it that, with both the casting and with the series.
Until it picks up narrative steam almost two-thirds of the way through the season, Jack Ryan is rote television: blandly entertaining. Hollywood’s goodest good guy plays a three decade-old character in a terror-plot drama series with a seemingly endless budget. It will be wildly popular, and perhaps it should be. Paint-by-numbers plotting can soothing as long as you stay within the lines. If only this Jack Ryan was painting with bolder colors.
It’s like the airport book of TV shows. Which, given that this is based on the characters of Tom Clancy, makes perfect sense, and might even rule the series a success.
Tom Clancy first introduced Jack Ryan, a former Marine who becomes a CIA analyst and then an unlikely field officer, in 1984’s The Hunt for Red October. He’s aged, in real-time, through 21 novels—three different authors have taken over the Ryanverse after Clancy’s death in 2013—and five feature films based on the books have earned over a billion dollars collectively at the global box office, when adjusted for inflation. In the most recent check-in, the novel Line of Sight, released in June, Jack Ryan was the president of the United States and his son, Jack Ryan Jr., trotted the globe thwarting terrorists.
Amazon’s Jack Ryan, then, is a bit of a presidential origin story, inspired by Patriot Games and Harrison Ford’s take on the character in the film. When we meet Jack, he’s an analyst working from a cubicle in Langley where he monitors wire transfers for suspicious activity. He has a theory about a new Islamic radical, Suleiman (Ali Suliman), whom he sees connected to red-flag activity, and defies protocol by sending his findings up the chain.
When it turns out he’s right, he whisked away—literally, a helicopter lands on the lawn of a party he’s attending—to track Suleiman down in the field. His mission? Casual: Stop the next Osama bin Laden.
Before the superhero boom of the last decade and its Hemsworths bulked up to the size of redwoods to fill out their spandex, the go-to action hero was the Everyman. Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan exists in a realistic world in which the people who save it don’t fly or have capes. They work in the government, solve problems that might actually exist (albeit dialed up on the outrageousness), operate on a whatta-guy moral compass we all like to think we have, and bust out a certain badassery when needed that we all think we could, too.
Harrison Ford, Alec Baldwin, Ben Affleck, and Chris Pine are certainly far more dashing and chiseled than your typical CIA analyst. But that’s the point of the Hollywood Everyman. The delusion of relatability is an aspirational mirror.
Krasinski might seem like an odd entrant into that fraternity of actors. But he’s long proven a range far beyond the deadpan mischief of Jim on The Office, with work in Sam Mendes’s underrated Away We Go, Gus Van Sant’s fracking drama Promised Land (which he co-wrote), last winter’s groundbreaking thriller A Quiet Place (which he co-wrote and directed), and most applicably 13 Hours, in which he plays a former Navy SEAL who defended the American diplomatic compound under attack in Benghazi.
So Krasinski might actually be the canniest casting yet for a new take on Jack Ryan, bulking up considerably for the occasion. (Tune into episode four, especially, to see the fruits of his labor.) Yet these kinds of castings work best when they lean into the left-field actor’s charms. Think how integral embracing Chris Pratt’s hamminess was to his unlikely emergence as Hollywood’s reigning action star. Ford’s Jack Ryan, for example, had that trademark Ford-ian wiliness. Krasinski is almost effortlessly charismatic—except in this.
He plays it so straight and so earnestly that the hokeyness of the dialogue—“I figure it’s better to be on the inside than be on on the outside and not be able to change anything”—is laid uncomfortably naked, and you find yourself searching for remnants of his more memorable performances. At the end of an impassioned speech in defiance of CIA leaders about ISIS strategy, you wistfully wish for Jack to look directly into the camera and shrug in exasperation.
The show itself lacks depth, but that’s also strangely its biggest draw.
That’s not to say it’s entirely slight. The action scenes are brutal. Both of the first two episodes conclude in massive shoot-em-up sequences that are exhilaratingly staged and extremely upsetting to watch.
But while the verisimilitude of the show’s global politics is key to the appeal of Jack Ryan as a hero protagonist, it is also a bit of a traumatic backdrop. This isn’t escapist entertainment by any means. The resonance is very much the point of this series, and why Clancy’s characters are ripe for revisiting every few years. Still, the tenderhearted amongst us might lack the constitution in today’s world to cheer on a graphic dramatization of a terrorist attack in Paris.
The series gets richer as it goes on, perhaps forgiving a paint-by-numbers pilot script as derivative as any forgettable one-season-and-done network drama series. There’s an implausible amount of deus ex machina assisting Ryan’s ascendance from desk-job to analyst to the CIA’s most valuable and skilled field officer. Is there a bad guy who’s missing? There will always be a clue to where he is hiding in plain sight that nobody but Jack Ryan can see. Is there a bad guy on the run? He will be pumping gas at a rural gas station at the same time Jack Ryan happens to be.
We know he’s going to save the day. (This isn’t a spoiler—we haven’t seen the finale—but just an inherent truth.) What hinders the show from prestige greatness is just how blatant that certainty is.
All of that said, the show is immensely watchable. Unlike so many drama series on streaming services, which are bloated, poorly paced, and suffer from narrative drift in the middle of their seasons, Jack Ryan gets considerably more engrossing past the season’s halfway point, especially when the narrative focus shifts to the character of Suleiman’s wife, Hanin (Dina Shihabi), who is desperate to flee Syria and her terrorist husband and becomes crucial to Jack’s mission. Shihabi is a force in the role, and her struggle for survival and safety finally brings the emotional gravitas that, for all the bloodshed we see up until that point, had been missing.
Amazon has already renewed Jack Ryan for a second season, and we’d be surprised if this show doesn’t turn into a valuable franchise for them. Everything about it is serviceable and broadly appealing, yet still highbrow, in a way that the streamer has struggled to achieve with a drama series. That the episodes grow exponentially stronger as the season progresses is certainly promising, too.
There is a reason, after all, that this character has been around for 30 years.