‘Rabbit Hole’ Review: Kiefer Sutherland Struggles to Hold Together Paramount+’s Messy Espionage Series

You know who I miss?

I miss WEIRD Kiefer Sutherland. Like the McRib, Weird Kiefer Sutherland was a limited-time-only event that took place between Sutherland’s ’80s and ’90s run as a conventional movie star and then his ’00s and ’10s run as a conventional television star. At the time, I’m afraid many people treated Weird Kiefer Sutherland as an almost disappointing anomaly like, “Man, look how far Kiefer Sutherland’s career has fallen,” rather than appreciatively tabulating all the wonderfully bizarre choices Sutherland was making in films like Dark City or even his one-minute cameo in A Few Good Men.

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If there’s anything I admire about Paramount+’s new financial espionage thriller Rabbit Hole — and I wish I admired more about it — it’s the attempt to build the show as a Grand Unified Theory of Kiefer Sutherland Performances. There’s a little Movie Star Kiefer, a little Weird Kiefer and a lot of TV Star Kiefer, proving along the way that while these elements emerge from the same thespian, they were never designed to come together as an especially coherent whole. In an odd way, I guess that’s fitting for Rabbit Hole, which isn’t an especially coherent show, though the third and fourth episodes sent to critics (out of four) are a vast improvement over the first two — in no small part due to co-star Charles Dance, voraciously devouring scenery.

Sutherland plays John Weir — no, not the figure skater — a data analyst and corporate spy with a history of paranoia and unspecified mental illness. John, a socially awkward bundle of affectations and nervous tics, has a small team of muckrakers who execute variably dirty tricks in order to help wealthy clients make even more money, ideally by sabotaging less likable moguls. What he does isn’t exactly legal, presumably, but for whatever reason his relationship with Agent Jo Madi (Enid Graham) of the FBI Financial Crimes Unit is one of tense shadowboxing, rather than outright antagonism.

Because of various childhood traumas, featured in a variety of flashbacks, John doesn’t trust anybody — and he especially doesn’t trust Hailey (Meta Golding), an attorney for a homelessness nonprofit. After meeting at a hotel bar, they have a one-night stand. When John finds himself publicly accused of murdering Edward Homm (Rob Yang), a Treasury Department investigator, he suspects he’s being set up. But is Hailey involved? Is his former business partner (Jason Butler Harner)? Or is it all part of a vast conspiracy? John wants answers and if you’ve ever seen Kiefer Sutherland want answers before, the dude really wants answers. John goes on the run to clear his name and bring down some monstrous manipulators of Big Data.

The first couple of episodes of Rabbit Hole (written and directed by creators John Requa and Glenn Ficarra) are really bad, and bad in a variety of ways — not least of which is that the third and fourth episodes are dedicated to making it clear that everything in those earlier episodes was a misdirect. A 10-minute misdirect? I’m there for it! But after two episodes of “Everything you know is wrong,” my instinct is to go, “That’s fine and well, but everything I knew was also really uninteresting, so why did I bother?”

The script is inept in delivering its exposition and in its attempt to create a fragmented narrative that mirrors John’s mental state. It all begins with a completely pointless in medias res opening, continues with flashbacks to things that happened minutes earlier (or decades earlier) and features long bouts of characters reciting each other’s résumés and the résumés of other characters, in lieu of finding ways to weave any of it into the action.

The show is fundamentally ugly and artificial, with Toronto and surrounding environs unconvincingly doubling for New York City and undermining the creators’ attempts to do a ’70s-style paranoid thriller, a genre that practically demands a level of authenticity that Rabbit Hole can’t even approach. Some of the production design in later episodes, including several of the safe houses that John has set up, is pretty neat, including John’s strategy for hiding important technology and documents. But any time the show is out in the world, the actors might as well be standing in front of a green screen.

So if the show’s structuring is disjointed and its sense of place is disjointed, who can blame Kiefer Sutherland for giving a disjointed performance? Rabbit Hole has no clue how seriously to take his mental illness other than references to an apparent breakdown eight years earlier, so how could the actor? Instead of going full-on Weird Kiefer Sutherland, he is made to convey John’s eccentricities through darting eyes and a nervous beating of his fingers against various surfaces. When he’s supposed to be showing how quick and resourceful he is at his job, it’s basically him going into buildings and yelling at people until they just give him access — as if security personnel in New York City have no experience handling rude, belligerent people. Through four episodes, he doesn’t come across as clever or damaged or fragile, no matter how much other people claim he is.

Any consistency to John’s personality is undermined further in his inert repartee with Agent Madi and, worse, his chemistry-free meet-cute with Hailey, a sequence of flirtation so devoid of charm — this is a failed attempt to tap into Movie Star Kiefer, who was a charismatic devil — that it’s like a less intentional version of the first meeting between Frank Sinatra and Janet Leigh in The Manchurian Candidate. In that classic film sequence, the non sequiturs and insinuations produce building tension, as well as the suspicion that brainwashing is involved. Maybe that’s the intention in Rabbit Hole as well, just without any effective execution.

Golding becomes much, much better in the third and fourth episodes when the writers stop trying to make her fast-talking and annoying and go for something closer to “humorously resilient” instead.

Humor, incidentally, is the thing Rabbit Hole maybe does best, which shouldn’t be wholly unsurprising given that comedy is where Requa and Ficarra cut their teeth. The series is ineffective as a ’70s thriller and misguided as an attempt to cover the same terrain as shows like Billions and Mr. Robot. But as a Coen Brothers knockoff, complete with one blatant Fargo nod and tonal similarities to Burn After Reading, it’s OK, especially in the third and fourth episodes.

The show’s improvement can be tied directly to the late arrival of Charles Dance, having a blast in a series in which everybody else seems somewhere between confused and miserable. Dance’s character, whose identity I won’t spoil even if it isn’t at all shocking, brings with him a series of long monologues that explain John’s mission, the stakes for the show and, yes, the stakes for society. The character is amusing and, like I said, the show has some intentional laughs, but there’s nary a grin to the subtext when it’s dumped all over the drama’s surface.

The show is about the way companies are using data and surveillance to anticipate and enslave the population. Data, you’ll be unsurprised to know, can be enlisted to manipulate voters and polarize the population, and a polarized population can turn to authoritarian demagogues, which could lead to the end of the American democratic experiment. And that would be bad. The plot is nonsense covered in headline-ripping window dressing, too MacGuffin-y to feel convincingly real and too real for MacGuffin-y escapism.

Dance, bringing his wry urgency to this two-years-ago version of timeliness, is a major elevating factor and there’s always some entertainment value even to an inconsistent Kiefer Sutherland performance. It still isn’t enough to go down this rabbit hole.

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