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Danger around every corner

TELEVISION CRITIC

With its new series, “Rubicon,” AMC appears to have set itself the challenge of mounting a show even slower than its “Mad Men.” And it has succeeded.

Created and partially written by Jason Horwitch (NBC’s “Third Watch"-related series “Medical Investigation”), it has clearly been made to recall the classic conspiracy thrillers of old, and slightly less old, from “The 39 Steps” to “Three Days of the Condor.”

Will Travers (James Badge Dale) is Hitchcock’s above-average average man, thrust into a mystery that upends his world and imbues every unexpected noise and peripherally glimpsed movement with threat. Part of a government team of intelligence analysts, socially askew types with the gift of seeing patterns in apparent chaos, he’s a genius among geniuses. A loner distracted from his own life, he carries in his head -- emptied since the death of his wife and daughter of any other significant concerns -- encyclopedias of obscure information. Yet he doesn’t remember that it’s his birthday.

Like most conspiracy thrillers, and theories, “Rubicon” is complicated to a fault. The trigger that sets the clockwork running here is the discovery of identical clues appearing simultaneously in the daily crosswords of several major newspapers: a signal of some sort, thinks Travers, though this seems a cumbersome way to accomplish what real-world conspirators might reasonably do with a phone call and a secret word -- “banana,” say, or “spittoon.” And that is only the first of many equally elaborate and artfully placed rebuses that will lead our hero down the rabbit hole and through the looking glass -- but wouldn’t have, of course, if he had never noticed or been able to solve them.

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With much of the drama played out on dark streets and in low-lighted spaces, and conditioned as we are by modern thrillers, which leave no room for reflection -- in “Rubicon,” we actually watch people reflect -- we are forever expecting something quick and awful and deadly to happen. Mostly, it does not; but a single 12-episode story can’t sustain that much violent action. It would seem completely, instead of just moderately, mad. It would wear you out.

The important violence -- all of it off-camera -- comes near the beginning, and is followed by a lot of slow digging, thread-tracing and code-cracking. This pace holds for the four episodes I’ve seen, and though I expect it will pick up at some point before the end, it’s nice having the time to look around and notice things and soak in the mood. And “Rubicon” is lovely to look at, photographed by Jonathan Freeman in contrasting images of order and disorder, and with a playful eye to planes of focus; it also makes a meal of the New York locations and weather. There’s a lot of activity within the frame and between shots, even when nothing much is happening in the narrative.

An excellent cast, including the always fine Arliss Howard as Travers’ possibly (or possibly not) evil superior and Miranda Richardson as a widow discovering her late husband’s secrets, keeps the story compelling whether or not it’s really believable.

Dale, who was one of the leads in HBO’s “The Pacific,” where he played another watchful man in a dangerous situation, is an attractive, precisely rumpled lead, good-looking in a way that’s just unusual enough to let him seem serious without having to work at it.

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That there are long passages without dialogue, or indeed without what we commonly call action, will surely put some viewers off -- it will be the Rubicon they will or will not cross. But I am happy to bathe in its careful, bad-dreamy atmosphere, to go with its twisty flow.

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robert.lloyd@latimes.com

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‘Rubicon’

Where: AMC

When: 8 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-14-L (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with an advisory for coarse language)

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