A young woman awakens in central London, surrounded by dead bodies, with no knowledge of what happened, how she got there, or who she is. She finds a note in her hand, addressed only to “you,” advising her to run. Gradually, some things come into focus: She works for a secretive wing of British intelligence, she has a supernatural ability to fire off deadly bursts of electricity, and her supposed allies might not really be on her side.
If you’ve seen The Bourne Identity, you might not be shocked by The Rook’s inevitable government subterfuge; if you’ve seen Heroes or X-Men or most any other superhero jam, likewise the paranormal powers gifted to various attractive young people—most notably our electricity slinger, Myfanwy (it rhymes with “Tiffany,” we are told) Thomas (Emma Greenwell). But The Rook has neither the drama nor the high-octane action of the former, nor the good old fun of the latter.
It’s hard to know what to make of The Rook, a miniseries which premiered Sunday on Starz, which wants to be a few things at once and never really succeeds with any. Adapted from the 2012 novel by Daniel O’Malley, the TV rendition is part science fiction, part superhero caper, and part spy tale; tonally, it’s dark, but not much more. It was originally set to be adapted by Stephanie Meyer—yes, that Stephenie Meyer, author of Twilight—but she departed over creative differences. What exactly those differences were we don’t know, but Greenwell, of Shameless fame, is tasked mostly with wandering around looking ponderous and confused as she slowly unravels the mystery, which is not, at least through the half-season made available for review, terribly compelling television. Olivia Munn appears as a plucky American—an invention for the TV adaptation—but even as the show’s web gets ever more tangled, it’s hard to feel invested.
Which is a shame, given its premise. It turns out Myfanwy’s intelligence division is staffed by people found to have supernatural abilities (e.g., Myfanwy’s electric blasts), who are gathered, apparently without much in the way of choice, at a young age and made to work in the name of national defense (ahem, defence). These abilities, alas, are mostly not the stuff of superheroes: Among Myfanwy’s colleagues are a set of bleached-blond quadruplets who together possess a hive mind and sleep in a single super-wide bed, tossing and turning in unison. Their power—and yes, their shared mind appears to be the entirety of their power—allows for such deeply disturbing scenarios as watching the three male quadruplets simultaneously develop a boner.
In the age of superheroes, the Rook characters’ collective powers feel a tad underwhelming. And indeed, those in possession of “extreme variant abilities” (or EVAs as the show terms it) being rounded up by their governments and pressed into pseudo-military service is perhaps a more plausible result than, say, the willy-nilly, mutants-are-people-too approach of X-Men. But if much of the fun of watching shows about people with supernatural powers is, well, watching said supernatural powers, The Rook leaves you wanting.
Myfanwy, we learn, had heretofore been something of a dud among EVAs: Despite her government minders’/employers’ initial excitement about her particular potential (for what—jolting enemies of the state?—we never learn), she’d never quite managed to harness her powers, so her service to her country had been mostly in the form of paper-pushing. But what exactly those more in tune with their EVAs actually do all day is never really clear. One man, possessed of the ability to fill the air around him with chemical compounds, is very powerful, we’re told—and yet he seems to use this gift almost exclusively to render the husband of the woman he’s having an affair with briefly unconscious while they, er, liaise. The doings of the EVA unit are not a minor question: We learn that most of the principals were taken to a specialized training academy during their youth, and we repeatedly see protesters gathered outside government buildings, waving signs and chanting about the immorality of this practice. Myfanwy, we learn, has “the potential to be a deadly weapon”—but if she and her cohort are meant to be spies, or assassins, or any other kind of governmental cudgel, The Rook is disinclined to tell.
Much like weather or cuisine, more interesting is the world that exists beyond Britain, and it’s a shame that The Rook has little interest in letting us dwell in it. There, EVAs seem to have more options—and also face more risk. Whereas British EVAs are simply bureaucrats, those born in other parts of the world sometimes fall prey to a rampant human trafficking network, wherein they are bought and sold to the ultrawealthy and/or criminally inclined for vast sums of money. Those who hunt them are known as Vultures, and some possess powers of their own. But glimpses of high-roller auction houses are fleeting, and Myfanwy’s squabbles about paperwork with her assistant are many. One hopes, generally, that the hero will be the most interesting figure in their story, but here that’s simply not the case.