TREADSTONE: Spy fun, but don’t say the B-word (Season 1 – Review)

Treadstone feels like a show that somebody made in 2008 and forgot about for over ten years.

There is something a little strange about Tim Kring’s series set in the Jason Bourne universe. For one thing, it seems utterly determined to never mention the ‘B word’ at any point. Not Blackbriar, the second secret CIA project to recruit, train and brainwash super-spies. That gets a mention, having collapsed during The Bourne Ultimatum and The Bourne Legacy. The events of those films, particularly Ultimatum, are expressly referenced or at least heavily hinted at. Bourne *himself* is referred to (as “the asset”, or something deliberately wink wink nudge nudge), but his name? Nope. It could be a rights issue. The credits do after all say “based on an organisation from the Bourne series of novels by Robert Ludlum” which is about as thin a tether as you can mine in order to put together a TV show. You can have the name Treadstone, and that’s it.

Yet at the same time, Kring goes out of his way to make this show, effectively, a lower-budget tribute act to the Bourne franchise, predominately the Paul Greengrass films which really established the tone and style of that saga – all shaky cam, pass the sick bag Krav Maga fight sequences, a global travelogue, lots of shady government intelligence agents in rooms trying to outfox assassins working as much with raw instinct as intellect. You’ve all seen a Bourne film, right? This doesn’t just inhabit the same narrative world but also the same visual and iconographic one. The music has John Powell’s percussive style. The fighting is close combat, no quarter, balletic hand to hand. The intrigue is post-Cold War (and mid-Cold War, actually) spycraft. It works to place itself as a side-story to the Bourne saga in the same manner as The Bourne Legacy from Tony Gilroy. That worked to distance from Greengrass in many ways. Treadstone works to revel in the comparisons.

The biggest surprise of all is that Treadstone, well… it’s actually not that bad, for what it is, even as a show caught between two worlds and two eras.

If you’ve forgotten who Tim Kring was, allow me to cast your mind back to 2006. Lost was the hottest thing on TV. Jack Bauer was a cultural icon. The Sopranos was about to end. And two years before the birth of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Kring turned up ahead of the superhero curve with NBC’s Heroes.

That’s a show that really warrants a rewatch and reappreciation these days because rarely has a series been so feted and fallen so hard from grace in such a short space of time. The first season of Heroes, with its sprawling cast, intertwining character stories, and global narrative, was a thrilling blend of comic-book panels and modern, escapist high concept storytelling. Partly thanks to the 2007 Writers Strike, a truncated second season which introduced new characters and storylines plunged rapidly off a narrative cliff from which the show, over two subsequent seasons, never recovered from. Heroeswas perhaps just a few years ahead of the curve, ahead of a zeitgeist it would have profited from, but many viewed Kring’s showrunning talents unable to truly shepherd the show in the right direction. He successfully revived the show for Heroes Reborn in 2016 but it barely made a dent in the landscape, despite the proliferation of superhero properties. Again, it missed the curve.

Treadstone is, consequently, the most high-profile gig for Kring since the days of Heroes, and you can very quickly spot the connective DNA. Heroes enjoyed hopping between time zones, building out a sinister conspiratorial mythology around the modern day setting, and Treadstone is the same as lead-billed actor Jeremy Irvine’s arc entirely takes place in 1973 as super-spy John Randolph Bentley works to expose a KGB version of the titular CIA ‘Treadstone’ program called ‘Cicada’. That connects to several modern-day narratives of, variously, activated ‘Treadstone’ or ‘Cicada’ agents, CIA intelligence investigators, and an intrepid journalist looking to expose the truth. In other words, everything you’ve seen in the Bourne movies, just with the added period setting to give the piece an added touch. It’s ambitious, global and sprawling and just about hangs together, even when some of the narratives begin spinning their wheels, and certain characters are far more interesting than others to spend time with. Just like Heroes, funnily enough, though this lacks anyone capable of immediately penetrating popular culture like that show’s Hiro Nakamura or Noah Bennet.

It’s a funny beast. On the one hand, it is firmly a network series, airing in the UK on Amazon Prime in one burst but in the US on the USA Network, alongside another movie spin-off series The Purge. On the other, it wants to be an edgier cable drama, dropping F bombs and upping the violence where possible, with a budget that allows for lots of striking external locations that do give the series a real sense of that global travelogue it indulges in. It sits between these two schools and as a result, at times, feels oddly old fashioned; not quite a throwback to the traditional network days (where this would have likely been a much more stand-alone episodic series under the spy framework, a la something like La Femme Nikita or The Pretender) but equally lacking the same kind of prestige TV punch or dexterity of the streaming era. The Purge has the same problem. Both are perfectly entertaining, building out aspects of the worlds they exist within, but they feel entirely disposable and non-essential as part of those broader frameworks.

This goes back to the reticence in connecting too heavily to the Bourne movies, which I absolutely understand on one level. One of the first rules of spin-off series to successful movies is that, initially, they stand on their own two feet away from what came before them. Ethan Hawke might deign to cameo in The Purge series but Matt Damon is never rocking up in Treadstone, let’s be honest. It makes sense to place clear blue water between this and Jason Bourne himself. Yet it also appeases Bourne audiences by sticking to those same kind of tropes. It wants to have its cake and eat it, but it has none of the underlying post-9/11 effect of the original Bourne trilogy, which helped reinvent action cinema  in a tense, paranoid environment that looked back at the conspiratorial thriller of the 70’s. It’s no coincidence Bentley’s arc takes place in that decade – Treadstone is directly connecting to an era deep within the Cold War that influenced the Bourne series and its fear of the American surveillance state and its extreme measures in times of political crisis. The Bourne films balanced striking set pieces with that commentary but Treadstone is all surface.

This is, in many ways, to be expected. Treadstone isn’t a show designed to reinvent the wheel. It plays with ‘safe’ political ideas – post-Soviet nuclear missiles, Russian oligarchs, shady North Koreans looking for an edge etc… and an American intelligence system permanently one step behind. It’s not all that controversial and feels in step with the ideas within the Bourne universe, but it oddly doesn’t even really much involve ‘Treadstone’ itself, with the suggestion that the program itself after which the show is named might become more central in future seasons. In the days of streaming, shows such as this have more chance of going more than one year, admittedly, but this implies a confidence on Treadstone’s part that is only half-warranted. You would be hard to give this space over some of the stronger written or developed shows in recent years but, equally, Treadstone on a basic level is appealing and enjoyable enough to stick with for its 10 episode run.

If you’re not a fan of Jason “don’t say his name” Bourne, however, you wonder just how interesting, long term, Treadstone will be, and as a Bourne fan you can’t help but wish it would be a bit less afraid of its own universe. If it does get a second year, maybe it will start embracing its own legacy.

Author of books: Myth-Building in Modern Media / Star Trek, History and Us | Writer of words on film/TV/culture | Rotten Tomatoes approved critic: Twitter: @ajblackwriter | Podcast chief: @wmadethis | Occasionally go outside.

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