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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

‘The Company’ on TNT: no dog days for TV

August. The dog days of summer. A veritable entertainment dead zone for TV… except we’ve got Eureka and Doctor Who on the Sci Fi Channel, both refreshing and fantastical breaks from the barrage of pointless “reality” game shows. Over on TNT, Saving Grace is both gritty and imaginative.
And starting this Sunday, August 5, TNT checks in again with another must-see … and it’s the kind of serious-minded, grimly elegant stuff we’d never have expected to see as summertime viewing before. (I love how TNT — and Sci Fi, too — has decided that there’s no reason why we can’t have great TV in the summer.) The Company, a three-week, six-hour miniseries, debuts Sunday at 8pm Eastern (with a repeat at 10pm; subsequent episodes will air on the following two Sundays, August 12 and August 19). Based on the novel by Robert Littell, it’s a sprawling suspense drama about the early days of the CIA and the spooks who waged the Cold War. If you liked last winter’s excellent The Good Shepherd, then you definitely need to check this out: it’s similar in tone and intent, but with lots more action and, you know, spy stuff.

It’s just as paranoid, though, and will keep you guessing from the get-go. I previewed the first episode, and wow: you just don’t know whom to trust. But there are no real villains, either (at least not yet — who knows what the second and third episodes will bring). The first episode is set mostly in Berlin and Washington in the early 1950s, and revolves around three former college friends — bright, privileged, shiny young men — who get seduced into espionage: Jack McAuliffe (Chris O’Donnell), Leo Kritzky (Alessandro Nivola), and Yevgeny Tsipin (Rory Cochrane). Yeah, as you might suspect, Yevgeny, a Russian educated in the U.S., ends up working for the KGB while his pals land at the CIA — that spoils nothing; Yevgeny gets recruited within the first twenty minutes or so — but he’s no bad guy. He’s motivated by genuine and deeply held beliefs about right and wrong … or, at least, he’s no more motivated by political ideology than his friends are.

There’s a lot of toing and froing about a British mole working both sides of the fence and threatening to bring down the Berlin operation, and the action-suspense is well done, but the really satisfying aspects of what I’ve seen are the finely drawn characters and the subtle shadings of morality many of them are dealing with. The cast is great, and also includes Alfred Molina as the head of the Berlin operation and Michael Keaton as James Jesus Angleton (the real person the Matt Damon character in The Good Shepherd was based upon).

I’ve got the other two episodes already in my greedy, geeky hands. This is the fun part of being a critic: I don’t always have to wait to find out what happens. And I can’t wait to see the final two episodes of The Company. It’s good stuff.

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MPAA: rated TV-14-LV

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