When a TV series opens with a character awakening in the rain surrounded by dead bodies and with no idea how she got there, it's hard not to want to find out what happens next. So it's almost an achievement that Starz's new series The Rook manages to diminish that desire one scene at a time by taking a dull approach to what ought to be compelling material. Superpowers! Double-crosses! Quadruplets who share one mind across four bodies! A man who uses his ability to put others to sleep to have sex with his mistress while her husband dozes at the breakfast table! It should all be so exciting, yet The Rook seems determined to maintain a low, steady fizzle that always appears to be on the verge of flickering out.
That's at least partly by design. Adapted from a 2012 novel by Daniel O'Malley, The Rook concerns the shadowy doings of the Checquy, a top-secret British organization designed to locate and train EVAs, men and women with supernatural abilities. (It's short for "Extreme Variant Abilities.") Doing so means butting heads with Vultures, human traffickers who kidnap EVAs and sell them on the black market to even less scrupulous clients. Showrunners Lisa Zwerling, Karyn Usher, and Stephen Garrett seem to want to tell an X-Men-esque story in a John Le Carré-inspired world of mysterious file cabinets and inter-office intrigue. (Originally an executive producer, Twilight creator Stephanie Meyer departed after production on the series began.)
It's not a bad idea, but there's no charge to the execution. Emma Greenwell stars as Myfanwy (rhymes with Tiffany) Thomas, the memory-wiped woman first seen in that arresting opening. Shades of Jason Bourne, she finds herself in danger with no idea what's going on. Fortunately, she has a guiding hand: herself. In her pocket, Myfanwy finds a note she's written to herself should she find herself unable to remember who she is. She's even given herself a choice in the form of two keys: a red one that will open a box allowing her to start over under another identity and a blue one that will allow her to start piecing together who she is and how she ended up in a tight spot.
Naturally, she chooses the blue key. It would be a short series if she didn't. (It's already kind of a short first season at eight episodes, the first four of which were provided to critics.) The choice eventually brings her back to her apartment, itself a place filled with secrets, including info on Checquy, an organization arranged hierarchically with titles taken from chess piece names. She's a rook (hence the title), a powerful piece but one others aim to take off the board. She's also an EVA who possesses gifts no one around her appears to fully understand, which might serve her well if it doesn't prove her undoing.
Soon Myfanwy finds herself wondering who she can trust. Her superior Linda Farrier (Joely Richardson) seems to have her best interests in mind, but who knows? Then there's the Gestalt, four siblings with a shared consciousness who collectively have a thing for Myfanwy, though that doesn't mean they're not the enemy. Further complicating matters: the arrival of Monica Reed (Olivia Munn), an American used to getting her own way -- her super-strength helps -- with little interest in respecting Checquy office politics.
The show isn't without clever touches. In one scene, Myfanwy use's The Gestalt's desire for her to her advantage, stirring such strong emotions when she kisses one that another crashes his car somewhere on the other side of London. The first half of the season also ends with a promising development, exploring what might happen if Myfanwy stopped listening to the advice she's left for herself and starts following her immediate instincts.
It's also one of the first moments when Myfanwy -- past or present -- becomes interesting. Greenwell does her best to suggest a character filled with complex, roiling emotions she can't express, but the writing never allows her to be anything but a skillful cypher, or provide much reason to care about her fate or the fate of the world in which she inhabits.
It's a show filled with intriguing ideas that sort of bounce around without really landing and the slick but frustratingly understated direction does little to liven it up. The presence of assured stars like Richardson and Adrian Lester helps, but Munn overcompensates with her brash American-ness. She's lively but she also seems out of place. Or maybe Munn has the right idea and the show should take its cues from her instead of staying true to its too-tepid vision of what happens when you mix spycraft and superpowers. It's a good idea in need of a less-sleepy show.
The Rook premieres Sunday, June 30 at 8/7c on Starz.