Jack Ryan vs The Family Man
Perhaps the most surreal part of watching the new season of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, streaming on Amazon Prime, is that there’s a better spy series on the same platform, and it’s an Indian production.
Having crammed every negative cliché about Muslims into season one, Jack Ryan sets its sights on Venezuela in season two. There’s a secret satellite, a dead US senator and excellent additions to the supporting cast, including Noomi Rapace, who is wasted as an elusive German spy (she will hopefully have more to do in season 3). Jack (John Krasinski) is more confident and decisive in this season, possibly because he’s patting himself on the back for sorting out Middle Eastern terrorism in season one. He doesn’t lose his shirt as often, but otherwise, Jack 2.0 is all about action – so much so that he doesn’t hesitate to box a fictitious president of Venezuela’s ears.
Venezuela, incidentally, is not amused by Jack Ryan. In September, the Venezuelan minister of culture shared a link to the show’s trailer and described it as a product of “the gringo propaganda machine”. This is ironic because President Nicolas Maduro has repeatedly accused America of interfering in Venezuela’s domestic affairs. You’d think he’d be happy to see his theory brought to fictional life by Jack Ryan.
While Jack Ryan doesn’t actualise Maduro’s actual allegations – these include injecting former president Hugo Chavez with cancer – the show does have the Americans casually sneak into Venezuela, drop a helicopter on the presidential palace in Caracas, and bring down a dictatorial president. If Maduro watches Jack Ryan, it might just feel like a documentary because the show is as outlandish as his accusations. (If you haven’t seen John Oliver’s take on President Maduro, look it up on YouTube.)
Other Venezuelans may notice how Jack Ryan’s depiction of the Venezuelan crisis is insipid to the point of being ill-informed. For instance, there’s no mention of “the Maduro diet” – food scarcity led to 74.3% of the population losing an average of 8.7kgs weight in 2017 – or “poopootov cocktails” (protestors filled jars with human faeces and water, and flung them at security forces). More than 600 Venezuelans have been arrested this year for protesting against Maduro’s government, but more protestors continue to fill the streets. None of this desperation is palpable in the Caracas where Jack and other all-American heroes save the day.
Then again, if you’re relying on American popular entertainment for news on current affairs, the joke’s on you. Do you believe America’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is full of good guys who selflessly work to protect the innocent? (Please say no).
In terms of complexity and storytelling, Raj Nidimoru and Krishna DK’s The Family Man, about a team of Indian intelligence officers trying to prevent a terror attack, is much better written. Set mostly in present-day India, it looks realistic and feels credible. The Family Man also dangles a familiar trope before the audience – Pakistan-backed terrorists – but unlike Jack Ryan’s Syrian or Venezuelan villains, these bad guys keep us guessing. The writing doesn’t fall back on clichés and instead remains suspenseful till literally the last second when the lid is blown off a factory full of poisonous gas. We can only hope that The Family Man being renewed for two more seasons means the original crew led by Manoj Bajpayee’s Srikant Tiwari can’t have been poisoned to death.
Still, for all its bombast, Jack Ryan is a fun watch, mostly because of its slick production and a supporting cast that boasts of actors like Wendell Pierce and Michael Kelly, who play golden-hearted CIA officers. Krasinski as Jack is good eye candy but doesn’t stand out as the Flubber of on-screen spies (cute and bounces back effortlessly from every disaster). In contrast, Pierce’s Jim Greer – grumpy, unfit and brilliant – is far more compelling. When the second season ends, no one cares what Jack will do, but you do want to know whether Greer really will retire and what lies ahead for Kelly’s Mike November (especially with the powerhouse bureaucrat who is his ex-wife, since they seem to be giving Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor’s romance a run for its money).
While The Family Man is the better show, there is something oddly comforting about the old-fashioned, simplistic storytelling of Jack Ryan. Maybe it’s how, in contrast to the complexity of the issues and deeply-flawed characters that The Family Man explores, Jack Ryan is set in a world in which idealism survives. Good thing we’ve got both at our fingertips.