Okay, here’s the best way I can describe Amazon’s new series, Jack Ryan: picture a television series about the Jack Ryan character from the Tom Clancy books and the movies based on them. The one played by Harrison Ford in Clear and Present Danger and Patriot Games, and by Alec Baldwin in The Hunt for Red October (and somewhat less memorably by Ben Affleck and Chris Pine, the latter in a movie with the post-colon title Shadow Recruit, which will never not be hilarious to me). Now picture that Jack Ryan is played by John Krasinski and in the early-ish stages of his career as an analyst at the CIA. Okay. Also, his boss, Jim Greer, played in the past by James Earl Jones, is now played by Wendell Pierce in all of his Bunk-from-The Wire crankiness. And the two of them are tracking a mysterious criminal figure who lives in the Middle East.
Really take a second to paint that picture in your brain. Close your eyes if you have to. Unless you’re, like, driving. Although you shouldn’t be reading this if you’re driving anyway. For the love of God, look at the road, Jeff. (This works best if your name is Jeff.) Okay, got it?
Cool. That is almost exactly what this series is. Which is fine. It’s good, even.
The Jack Ryan character — the screen version, at least — is more of a vessel than anything else. He’s not as dynamic as a James Bond or a Jason Bourne. He brings what the actor playing him brings and very little else. That’s why the Harrison Ford versions are so rewatchable. (The Hunt for Red October is rewatchable, too, but less for Alec Baldwin’s performance than for reasons related to Sean Connery as a submarine captain). It’s not a knock on the other actors, all of whom have done fine work in other roles. It’s just that there needs to be an inherent allure there and none of them are Indiana Jones. Most of us aren’t, you know?
But this is also why Krasinski works in the role. That guy is likable, man. He’s got an everyman quality to him that makes Jack relatable in the early parts of the series, through the first four episodes originally screened for critics. Or at least he has as much of an everyman quality that a tall, ripped, charming guy who is married to Emily Blunt can have. (I do mean ripped, by the way; Krasinski appears to have been in the gym for most of the hours he did not spend directing A Quiet Place. More like Jacked Ryan. He has muscles now. That’s what I’m getting at.) His version of Jack is brilliant, of course, and puts things together before other people with higher ranks, naturally, and would save lives if people would just listen to him, but he also likes baseball and looks exasperated when his bosses dismiss his ideas. It works because Krasinski makes it work, and because it’s a lot of fun to watch him play off of a cranky Wendell Pierce.
(No, for the record, he does not glance directly into the camera at any point, even when he is at his desk in the office and his boss is making questionable decisions, even when he sees his face start to curl itself into something resembling the one we’ve seen him make a million times on The Office. That’s the one part of this that you probably pictured earlier that isn’t in there. But, I mean, why would it be? We’ve all had our fun with the Jim Halpert Face. And John Krasinski made a career and a whole pile of money off of it. But it’s time to move on. Let John Krasinski live, Jeff.)
It also works because Carlton Cuse and Graham Roland, the creative team behind the show, know what they’re doing. And what not to do. The show doesn’t reach the dramatic highs of, say, the best stretches of Homeland, or the pulse-pumping intensity of peak 24 (at least not yet), but I’m not sure it’s even really going for that. It also doesn’t fall into the “a thing you know, but gritty now, for some reason” trap or do the paint-by-numbers prestige drama coloring book that a number of new shows — I won’t name names but let’s say one rhymes with “Rozark” — have tried lately. It settles into a groove that might not win it a crate full of awards but will probably make it a more fun and reliable watch than The Dreadful Chronicles of Bleak City, or whatever drama you’re currently half a season behind on because you can’t bring yourself to watch another episode.
The short version in all of this is that Amazon’s Jack Ryan is a well-crafted, watchable show, with some good action scenes, starring actors who are doing the things they are best at. There’s something to be said for this kind of show. And this is a pretty good version it. I guess what I’m saying is that you could do a whole lot worse, Jeff.
‘Jack Ryan’ debuts via Amazon Prime Video on Friday, August 31.