NBC's new political thriller "American Odyssey" is both wildly ambitious and wildly familiar, and those are just two of the opposing forces it manages to make work to its advantage.
Long before it was set to premiere Sunday, Peter Horton's series was being linked to other things: When the network added "American" to its title, many saw an attempt to mimic the successful "American Sniper," even though NBC was already pushing "Traffic" as the model for the series' cat's cradle of a story line. With a strong female lead, often in a head scarf and imperiled in the desert, comparisons to "Homeland" and "The Honourable Woman" are inevitable, while the stateside plots evoke "The Firm" and even "Conspiracy Theory."
All these analogies are legitimate, but none should be taken as particularly meaningful. "American Odyssey" is very much its own creation: clever, exciting, colorful without being self-consciously so. Most important, it is only occasionally ridiculous in the way conspiracy thrillers inevitably are.
A spiritual replacement for the recently canceled "Revolution," "American Odyssey" eschews the temptations of futuristic apocalypse for the trickier terrain of contemporary war and the byzantine possibilities of the military-industrial complex.
In the desert of North Africa, a team of American soldiers unexpectedly finds and kills the commander of Al Qaeda. (Cue Team Six references.) Baffled by this turn of events, Sgt. Odelle Ballard ("Pushing Daisies' " Anna Friel) combs through the dead man's computer, where an encrypted file reveals what appears to be a disturbing connection to an American company. Just as a team of mercenary soldiers appears to "debrief" her unit, Odelle manages to download the files to a thumb drive, which will become one of the more mobile MacGuffins in television history.
"Debrief" turns out to mean "destroy," which leaves Odelle as the sole survivor of her unit, alone in a hostile land.
The desert quest has become something of a leitmotif in television. The scoured earth as enemy and metaphor has served a wide variety of modern characters in many different ways — Bryan Cranston's Walter White found only corruption in the desert, while Maggie Gyllenhaal's "Honourable Woman" discovered both strength and vulnerability. Odelle's journey, which forms the main but far from only narrative of "American Odyssey," is more of an epic variety. As the title indicates, she will visit many places and meet an assortment of people in her attempt to return home. A few will aid her, some will injure her and at least one will stalk her through early episodes.
Friel's Odelle is the heart of the series, and mercifully, she is neither supersoldier nor superspy. She has the skills, courage and resilience of a fine soldier, but her only "power" is a command of several languages and an overwhelming desire to see her daughter and husband again.
Both of whom have been told by Odelle's commanding officer (played by Treat Williams) that she is dead.
Meanwhile — and "American Odyssey" is all about the meanwhiles — Peter Decker (Peter Facinelli, "Nurse Jackie"), a former U.S. attorney gone corporate, begins to suspect that the company he has been hired to clean up is beyond the aid of smart tax litigation, and not just because of all the issues raised by Occupy Wall Street activists camped out in front of the building. One of whom is Harrison Walters (Jake Robinson), a rich kid turned activist who clearly hasn't watched enough television. When a dead-eyed but comely young woman is introduced as "a reporter for Time magazine," Harrison quickly invites her to his group's planning meeting. Yet when paranoid hacker Bob (Nate Mooney) tries to show him proof of military-industrial complex corruption — i.e. Americans funding terrorists — Harrison blows him off.
Those of us better versed in contemporary narrative know: dead-eyed but comely young reporter "bad"; slightly loony hacker "good."
Because, of course, Bob is right about so many things, and he and Harrison are soon on their own quest, as is Peter, all of which, one assumes, will lead them inexorably to whatever secret Odelle has on that thumb drive and, one hopes, Odelle.
But not too soon. As Odysseus himself discovered, an epic tale is all about the journey.
When: 10 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-14-LV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14, with advisories for coarse language and violence