Brian de Palma’s “Mission: Impossible” — the first film of Paramount’s ongoing action franchise — starts with a con inside a con. Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and his team are sent to retrieve some dangerous doodad or another, only to see the operation go very, very wrong. People die. Hunt is labeled a traitor. Only after coming face to face with the man sent to bring him — and some very fast running (the only way Cruise can) — does he manage to escape. Then he’s in the wind, left to pinpoint who betrayed him, why, and how he can clear his name.
Why am I bringing up a movie from 1996 in a review for a TV show debuting in 2023? No reason. Let’s talk about “Rabbit Hole,” the first season of Paramount’s new action series, which starts with a con inside a con. John Weir (Kiefer Sutherland) and his team are hired to frame one big-deal dude or another, only to see the operation go very, very wrong. People die. Weir is labeled a traitor. It’s only after coming face to face with the man who may have set him up — and some very labored running (the only way Sutherland can) — does he manage to escape. Then he’s in the wind, left to pinpoint who betrayed him, why, and how he can clear his name.
To be fair, this is a fairly standard set-up for an espionage thriller. But even if “Mission: Impossible” doesn’t spring to mind while watching the “Rabbit Hole” premiere — I mean, it’s meant to appeal to Sutherland’s “24” fanbase — De Palma’s meticulous, emotional approach to the template emphasizes what’s lacking in John Requa and Glenn Ficarra’s series: “Rabbit Hole” does a fine job going through the motions, but it never feels like it’s invested in its characters enough to stand out from the pack.
For some viewers, that may be enough. Since “24” hit it big, Sutherland has kept plugging away at action-thrillers like “Designated Survivor,” “The Fugitive” (2020), and various films. None have been able to match the rush of a real-time ticking clock, but there’s clearly an audience to see the former Jack Bauer dig his way out of an impossible scenario.
Courtesy of Marni Grossman / Paramount+
In “Rabbit Hole,” his dire circumstances start in a confessional, where a desperate Peter Weir tells the priest he just needs someone to listen, and if that someone is God, all the better. “Maybe He can tell me what the fuck is going on,” Weir says, before we jump three weeks back in time. Weir runs his own corporate espionage business, and things are going pretty well. He makes a quick buck (OK, a few million bucks) tricking a dick-ish Wall Street bro into a bad investment and even goes to bed with a beautiful woman in the process.
The next day, when he wakes up with Hailey (Meta Golding), paranoia appears to set in: Weir claims to find a camera in her hotel room and accuses her of blackmailing him. Before she can figure out what he’s on about, Weir is off — back to the office, back to his life, as sure of his claims as he is that Hailey doesn’t have anything on him anyway.
But then weird stuff really does start to happen. Weir keeps having nightmares from his childhood. Soon, he’s being followed. And when an old friend (Jason Butler Harner) hires him for a cloak-and-dagger operation, what seems like a smooth execution suddenly blows up in his face.
“Rabbit Hole” is pretty slick when it comes to depicting each grift, and it’s self-aware enough to have a little fun along the way. Sutherland can play a smart-ass hero in his sleep, and he seems to enjoy making cocky quips and pulling cons as a throwback hero for the Boomer generation. (Weir takes his prescription meds with a glass of whiskey, only pays in cash, and hates the internet.) The scripts (by Requa and Ficarra, who also direct) are mostly serviceable, but they do offer a few surprises amid the routine action fare. (After a stock rescue scene, Weir gets called out for casual racism — by the person he just saved — and I gotta respect it. They worked in the accusation instead of simply re-writing the scene.)
As a mindless diversion, “Rabbit Hole” goes down easy enough. The twists may not always land with gravity, but the sheer number keep you guessing as much as Weir (without any of the dire consequences). If the series wasn’t so brazenly reminiscent of better spy offerings — or if it showed a bit more pizzazz in playing off the old hits — its eight-episode first season could be a worthy investment. Instead, I’d recommend revisiting the classics. From the polished storytelling to the characters driving the action, there’s a reason they stand the test of time — and keep standing out after all these years.
“Rabbit Hole” premiered Sunday, March 12 at the 2023 SXSW Festival. The series will make its wide debut Sunday, March 26 with two episodes on Paramount+. New episodes released weekly.