Spy dramas have to hew to a few basic principles: They have to show a resourceful character confronting or subverting powerful elements with mysterious agendas, they have to look cool and they have supply regular doses of action and adrenaline.
"Hunted" (premieres Fri., Oct. 19 at 10 p.m. ET on Cinemax), an espionage series starring Melissa George, succeeds when it comes to all those basics. "Hunted's" mythology gets a bit convoluted and somewhat more contrived toward the end of the eight-part series, but in the main, it's quite enjoyable to see a character-driven, action-laced spy drama take full advantage of the serialization possibilities of pay cable.
AMC's late, lamented "Rubicon" tried that kind of thing and though it was a wonderful show, it didn't work as a commercial entity. And though "Homeland" is the media darling of the moment, its laudably complex story is still not pulling in the kind of the overnight ratings that zombies, ghosts and vampires usually garner without breaking a sweat. It's not easy to remember who did what to whom and why in spy dramas, which is one of the reasons the slick "Alias" and the much lighter "Chuck" often staggered under the weight of their own histories.
All in all, it's easy to see the upside of "Hunted's" short season, which you might want to save up on your DVR and watch in big chunks, the better to remember who's who and what grudges they carry.
"Hunted," in which capable "Alias" vet George plays an operative named Sam Hunter, actually provides a compelling, Bourne-esque counterpoint to "Homeland," though there are also a number of welcome similarities. Both shows are constructed around tightly wound, driven women, they're both shot with crisp immediacy and they both explore difficult lives built on queasy, unstable compromises. But "Hunted" removes one of the foundations of "Homeland," which revolves around characters who serve a cause, a country or a belief (or try to convince themselves that they do).
"Hunted," which was created by former "X-Files" writer/producer Frank Spotnitz, takes place in the high-stakes arena of private espionage, where a kind of loyalty is available for those who can pay for it. When the only real goal of an operation is to keep a deep-pocketed corporation happy, it's hard to find any principles to latch on to, and holding on to battered ideals and personal loyalties is a real liability in this ruthless, cynical world. Viewed from one angle, "Hunted" actually goes a step further into the political realm than "Homeland" by implying that governments exist to serve multinational corporations, not vice versa, and that anyone who thinks otherwise is uninformed or deluded.
To its credit, "Hunted" doesn't takes its profoundly disconnected characters and slap them into a slick, glitzy story about heroism in the face of greed. It marries the doubt, regret and longing they feel into a chugging, twisty spy story about the cost of selling your soul one piece at a time. Aesthetically, the spare, washed-out look of the drama reinforces the idea that every player in this game is ultimately a pawn on a very big chessboard. If things get a little Gothic at times, if the show is sometimes a little on the nose (i.e., a spy lost in an actual maze) and if the somewhat frustrating final episode left me with a lot of questions, the season as a whole was a well-crafted entertainment with moments of real resonance and suspense.
If nothing else, "Hunted" did an admirable job of making me believe that George could take out a large array of bad guys. In the press notes, she said her "Hunted" martial arts training was the hardest thing she's ever done, and I believe it -- I think I got bruises just from watching her fight. Moral grey areas are swell and everything, but it's fun to see what happens to the mystery briefcase and to witness how often the wiry blonde can kick some meathead's ass. With "Hunted" and the similarly efficient "Strike Back," Cinemax has carved out a nice little niche as the thinking person's action network; I don't know about you, but I'd take another season of the London-set "Hunted" over more "Boardwalk Empire" any day of the week.
This being a mostly British production, the cast is unsurprisingly full of good supporting performances: "Lost's" Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje plays Sam's conflicted team leader (though a few extraneous, slow-moving scenes of him examining his crisis of faith seem present merely to give the actor something to do), Adam Rayner is highly watchable as Sam's sharp, watchful co-worker, and the new-guy loudmouth played by the amusingly named Lex Shrapnel grew on me a lot as the season progressed.
"Game of Thrones" fans should know that two residents of Westeros do sensational work here: The performances by Stephen Dillane and Patrick Malahide are worth the price of admission and then some. Dillane (a.k.a. "GoT's" Stannis Baratheon), who plays Sam's chilly, enigmatic boss, effortlessly makes a mere flick of the eyes interesting: He's one of those rare actors whose still, alert presence is endlessly charismatic.
Malahide's character, Jack Turner, isn't all that different from "GoT's" Balon Greyjoy: Like that proud nobleman, his "Hunted" character is a ferociously driven man whose well-intentioned but tentative son turned out to be a disappointment, if not a liability. Malahide is magnetic; his performance as the canny, shark-like Turner, whose smile is scarier than his grimace, is one of the best things you'll see on television this year.
Turner and his son, Stephen (Stephen Campbell Moore) are part of an epic struggle to win a very lucrative contract, and the further Sam infiltrates these moneyed mens' lives, the more conflicted she is about what she finds in his well-appointed, poisonous household. It's a credit to Moore, by the way, that the arc of his widowed character -- who, by design, functions as the dupe of almost everyone around him -- is as effective as it is.
There's an ongoing mythology about Sam's past that collides with the present-day storyline in sometimes confusing ways, and the tangled build-up of mythology is not the only part of "Hunted" that recalls "The X-Files" (just for starters, why a powerful conspiracy doesn't just kill off those it finds inconvenient is a question that's likely to occur to you at one point or another). This is the kind of show where it's cruel to give anything important away, but there's one character whose presence is quite effective on screen, but whose role in the story is never fully explained. If I'm able to hunt down the answers I'd like to get from Spotnitz, you can be sure I'll share them here after the finale.
Though there's no time travel, "Hunted" reminded me a little of "Looper," in that if you poke at the structure of the thing too much, you'll just give yourself a migraine. But I was very willing to give the worthwhile "Looper" a break because so much of it made emotional and instinctual sense, and the same is true of this intelligent Cinemax drama. It's essentially interested in the ways in which lonely, damaged characters allow themselves to find comfort in a world that has no fixed moral moorings, and the wounded tenacity of these people is every bit as intriguing as the progress of that mystery briefcase.
Ryan McGee and I discuss "Hunted" in the Talking TV podcast below (along with "Suburgatory," "Emily Owens, M.D." and "American Horror Story: Asylum."). More Talking TV podcasts can be found here and on iTunes.
"Hunted" premieres on Fri., Oct. 19 at 10 p.m. ET on Cinemax.