If Amazon Prime Video has a brand identity, it's "shows for dads." The streaming service has invested heavily into a specific type of action show targeted at the middle-aged suburban male demographic with Bosch, Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan, and Reacher. They're all based on popular paperback novels about highly competent men with military and/or law enforcement backgrounds who are willing to break the rules in pursuit of truth and justice. These shows aren't chasing Emmys, they just want to entertain with a twisty plot, some thrilling action set pieces, and a mildly complex main character. They're also three of the service's most popular and successful shows. Prime Video's latest series, The Terminal List, fits that dad-friendly bill to a T. By the humble standards of the genre, The Terminal List is a smashing success. How good it actually is a little harder to measure, though.
The Terminal List follows Navy SEAL lieutenant commander James Reece (Chris Pratt) as he tries to get to the bottom of a conspiracy (or all the way to the top of, considering where conspiracies tend to go) that has left a trail of carnage through his life. Reece was leading an operation in Syria that went wrong, and he ended up the only survivor. When naval investigators question him about what happened, their account — for which they have audio evidence — doesn't align with his memories of the day. He's having memory problems overall, which doctors attribute to a concussion he suffered during the mission. But he suspects someone is targeting his platoon, and his suspicions are confirmed when he's attacked by masked assassins. After brutally defeating them, he enlists his old SEAL buddy Ben Edwards (Taylor Kitsch), who now works for the CIA, and investigative journalist Katie Buranek (Constance Wu) to help him unravel the conspiracy and get revenge on the people behind it. Each episode, he adds new names to his list of people connected to the conspiracy — and crosses some off.
The show is based on a novel by Jack Carr, a former Navy SEAL, and the production made a point of hiring as many veterans as possible. As a result, it feels very authentic in its depiction of the military's most lethal special operations force. SEALs' fondness for hatchets is featured in one of the most gruesome scenes I've ever seen on television, and the operators have beards and tattoos in a way that's true to life, even if the Department of Defense doesn't like to acknowledge it. Sometimes it gets a little too authentic; the military jargon in the first few episodes is so thick that it's like watching a foreign show without subtitles. If you understand that "we've got heavy contact" means "people are shooting at us," you'll respect The Terminal List. If you have to stop and think about it, it might take you out of the moment. The dialogue gets more normal as the show progresses, though. And even when it's hard to understand, it's still kind of cool. I now know what "we've got heavy contact" means. And there's plenty of sharp dialogue throughout the show. ("Do you want to be a little red link on her Wikipedia page?" asks a kingpin to a powerful woman's lackey.)
Pratt's performance is strong in the most serious lead role of his career. It's Pratt's third time playing a Navy man; he previously played a SEAL in Zero Dark Thirty, a career-changing role that came when he was still best known for playing lovable, soft-bodied goofball Andy Dwyer on Parks and Recreation, and Owen Grady in the Jurassic World films is a Navy veteran. The Terminal List shows he has some range within that troop-respecting persona, though. He doesn't do any wisecracking, and pushes his charisma to its limit as Reece does increasingly unsympathetic things in his pursuit of vengeance. To the show's credit, it does not at all shy away from the fact that SEALs are not good guys. They're not evil — they love their families and each other and defend America from enemies and all that— but they are stone-cold killers. "It would be a mistake to push a man to violence when violence is what he has dedicated his life to perfecting," Reece warns Tony Liddel (JD Pardo), an FBI agent on his trail. Reece is as antiheroic as a hero can be, complex enough to be compelling for the whole season. His deteriorating mental state throughout the show allows him to justify extreme brutality as part of his mission. And that brutality leads to some excellent action scenes. The stunts are impressive and the fights pack a visceral wallop.
The action does feel like it was prioritized over the writing. The Terminal List starts as a paranoid conspiracy thriller, where Reece isn't sure if what's happening is even real, but by the end of Episode 2 it becomes a revenge thriller with some conspiracy thriller elements. The conspiracy plot is inherently more interesting, because there's only so much that can be done with a revenge plot. They're always pretty much the same, because they're just someone tracking down and killing people who wronged them. Unfortunately, The Terminal List's conspiracy plot is never surprising. It unfolds with the rote inevitability of a revenge plot. You'll be watching to see how the conspiracy gets unraveled, because you'll be able to predict everything that happens before it does. It is an unusually pro-revenge story, though. There are a lot of things Reece questions, but the efficacy of revenge is not one of them.
The writing also underserves the female characters. Constance Wu's Kate Buranek is immediately put at a disadvantage by her character introduction, which is sitting down at a bar and ordering a whiskey, neat, the hoariest of "tough chick" cliches. It's a testament to Wu's talent that she's able to make Buranek a compelling character after that. And Riley Keough's role as Reece's wife Lauren is so thankless and minimal that I'm surprised Keough even took it. Saying more about her would be a spoiler, but if you're familiar with action movie cliches, you'll be able to guess what very quickly happens to her.
But ultimately, The Terminal List's flaws don't overpower what's good about it. Watching it, I had the sensation of being bothered by certain creative choices (Why is everything so dark? Do admirals not turn their lights on?), but not so much that they impacted my enjoyment of the action, the performances, or the pace. The worst thing The Terminal List could have done was move slowly, but it keeps the tempo up enough to stay entertaining from the first shot to the last. It feels more like a traditional episodic TV show than movie star-led shows usually do (and Jack Carr has plenty of other James Reece books if Amazon wants to keep the show going). It's popcorn entertainment with a sheen of seriousness. Sometimes that's all a dad needs.
Premieres: Friday, July 1 on Amazon Prime Video (all 8 episodes)
Who's in it: Chris Pratt, Taylor Kitsch, Constance Wu, Riley Keough, Jeanne Tripplehorn
Who's behind it: Chris Pratt, director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day), creator David DiGilio
For fans of: Dad shows, Navy SEALs
How many episodes we watched: 8 of 8