“American Odyssey” is a solid “third of a show.” Telling the interlocking stories of three people plunged into the middle of an international emergency, NBC’s latest drama is only able to produce one strong plotline among mediocre others that are marred in predictability and flat characters.
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The first and strongest of these threads is that of Odelle Ballard (Anna Friel, “Pushing Daisies”), a special forces operative whose squad uncovers files that potentially connect Al-Qaeda with an American corporation, S.O.C. After her unit is brutally attacked and executed by the Blackwater-esque O.S.E.L.A, Odelle finds herself the lone survivor just trying to live another day and get back home to her husband and daughter.
The storyline puts its entire weight on Friel, who is more than up to the challenge. The actress displays a perseverance in her character that goes beyond dogged determination. Trapped in a hostile nation and pursued by a brutal group of mercenaries, Odelle is the character going through the titular “odyssey” in her quest to get home against insurmountable odds.
The show couples its narrative ambition with dynamic visuals. Use of long takes during the opening combat situations reveals the well-trained unit Odelle helps command, but the most impressive camera work comes when the story becomes constricted. During the first episode, “Gone Elvis,” Odelle finds herself captive in a manhole cage. In the scenes depicting her imprisonment, the frame is almost entirely restricted to her trapped viewpoint as she begs her captors. When a woman burns herself, the tension rises as Odelle instructs a teenager, Aslam (newcomer Omar Ghazaoui), in helping the woman while the viewer struggles along with her to assess the situation.
This combination of characterization and ambitious craft make Odelle’s sections worth watching. However, the rest of “American Odyssey,” is not so compelling.
There’s corporate attorney Peter (Peter Facinelli, “Twilight”), who realizes something fishy is going on with his client, S.O.C., and begins to investigate. Meanwhile social activist Harrison (Jake Robinson, “The Carrie Diaries”) meets a paranoid conspiracy theorist named Bob (Nate Mooney, “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”), who isn’t as crazy as he sounds.
Peter and Harrison are mostly blank slates, ready to tackle the dark truths they uncover — and Facinelli and Robinson do what they can — but the characters aren’t very intriguing in themselves. Instead, all the intrigue is displaced to the events that surround them. There are snippets of backstory, but the show throws you so many side characters and mysterious organizations that there is little time to get to know Peter and Harrison. While Odelle is given time to develop as a character, the conspiracy trumps any real development for her two counterparts.
But the growing conspiracy suffers from being overly familiar. Every death and “disappearance” is easy to see coming. There’s also the traditional “He knows,” phone call between villains after one of the protagonists uncovers key information. There’s nothing really that surprising to catch a well-versed viewer off-guard, keeping the show from becoming the thriller it aspires to be.
It’s commendable to see NBC air a show with such an ambitious nature, but this ambition is overshadowed by a lacking pilot. There is some strong cinematography and performances, but they all seemed centered on one particular storyline right now. If “American Odyssey” is going to be a journey worth taking, it needs to find a better balance between its three primary plot threads.