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Jason Bourne Spinoff Treadstone Struggles to Set Itself Apart

The last time that producers attempted to extend the Jason Bourne franchise without star Matt Damon, the result was the underwhelming 2012 film The Bourne Legacy. That movie starred Jeremy Renner as Aaron Cross, another enhanced covert agent working for a branch of the same agency that trained and then hunted Bourne. Legacy was a mild commercial success, but the character of Aaron Cross was dropped when Damon decided to return for 2016's Jason Bourne. Now that Damon is once again expressing reluctance to return to the iconic character, the franchise is working around him again with the even more superfluous TV series Treadstone.

Named after one of several overlapping secret organizations that have factored into the series' increasingly convoluted mythology, Treadstone takes place during two separate timelines. Both provide additional (and unnecessary) context to the Bourne saga. The series opens in 1973 East Berlin, where CIA agent J. Randolph Bentley (Jeremy Irvine) has been captured by Soviets and subject to a mix of drugs and torture designed to brainwash him and turn him into a double agent dubbed a "cicada." Bentley escapes his seductive Russian captor Petra (Emilia Schüle) only to return to an agency that mistrusts and mistreats him.

NEXT: Jason Bourne Spinoff Treadstone's First Trailer Wakes More Sleeper Agents

In the present day, the cicada project is being revived by unknown forces, reactivating sleeper agents around the world who are unaware of their own abilities and training. Although it's sometimes indicated that Cicada is the project's proper name, it's also an extension of Treadstone, the shady organization seemingly brought down by Jason Bourne over the course of his first three movies. When CIA agent Ellen Becker (Michelle Forbes) asks her boss Dan Levine (Michael Gaston) how it's possible that Treadstone still exists, he dismissively tells her, "It was bigger than we thought." That's enough justification for the show's addition of possibly dozens of previously unrevealed Treadstone assets.

Bourne himself is never named in the four episodes sent for review. However, there are references to the Blackbriar hearings from The Bourne Ultimatum, and CIA field agent Matt Edwards (Omar Metwally) says that he was "there when that asset went rogue in New York," a reference to Ultimatum's climactic action. As in Legacy, the show seems both desperate to remind audiences of the Bourne connection and desperate to downplay his importance so viewers understand he is just one of many dangerous, high-powered agents loose around the world.

The first episodes focuses mainly on two of those agents: Doug McKenna (Brian J. Smith) is an oil-rig worker in the Arctic who's just been laid off when an encounter with a mysterious woman reawakens his Treadstone training, throwing his seemingly idyllic life with his nurse wife Samantha (Tess Haubrich) into chaos; and SoYun (Hyo-joo Han) is a meek housewife in North Korea who suddenly finds herself with the abilities and instincts of a ruthless assassin and becomes a pawn in a power struggle among North Korean government officials.

The show also spends time with CIA agents Becker and Edwards as they try to track down the people responsible for reactivating Treadstone, as well as British journalist Tara Coleman (Tracy Ifeachor), who's on the trail of a potential rogue nuclear missile, and an older Petra (Gabrielle Scharnitzky), who's still connected to the Russian government. On top of that, the show also follows the continued exploits of Bentley in 1973 as he witnesses the original birth of Treadstone.

It's a lot to keep track of, and yet none of it is particularly interesting. Without a central character, Treadstone is mostly a collection of dull subplots, and while some of the acting is strong (especially Han as the conflicted wife and mother, and Schüle as the steely young Petra), no one here has the charisma of Jason Bourne or even Aaron Cross.

The ever-expanding web of conspiracies wasn't what made the Bourne movies entertaining to watch; it was Jason Bourne himself, and his journey to understand his own identity, that made the movies compelling. The producers of Treadstone have taken the superficial elements of the Bourne movies, including the conspiracy and some of the filmmaking techniques, but they haven't found any characters with Jason Bourne's complexity and vulnerability.

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The show's directors (including Ramin Bahrani and Alex Graves) don't imitate the signature shaky-cam aesthetic of main Bourne director Paul Greengrass (who helmed three of the five films), but they do stage a number of close-quarters fights using unlikely implements as weapons, a hallmark of the film series. There's also one decent car chase through the streets of Paris (being played by Hungary) in the second episode. Of course, Treadstone is operating on a smaller budget than the movies, which means that it has to rely more on tense conversations than on large-scale action sequences, and that's where show creator Tim Kring and his writers fall short.

Kring is best known as the creator of Heroes, and Treadstone takes a similar wide-ranging ensemble approach, with action set in various places around the world and main characters who never interact with each other directly. It's also similarly disjointed and clumsy, telling multiple stories in broad strokes rather than one or two well-defined central narratives. It's possible (and even likely) that the characters will eventually converge over the course of Treadstone's 10-episode first season, but these opening episodes feel like an extensive set-up for an unclear pay-off.

Advertised as "from a producer of the Bourne franchise" and meticulously credited as "based on an organization from the Bourne series of novels by Robert Ludlum," Treadstone is about as connected to the Bourne movies as those awkward phrases imply. The show is a forgettable espionage drama with a tenuous connection to a popular character who never appears and is never mentioned, and would be completely out of place even if he did show up.

Starring Brian J. Smith, Jeremy Irvine, Michelle Forbes, Omar Metwally, Tracy Ifeachor, Hyo-joo Han, Gabrielle Scharnitzky, Michael Gaston, Shruti Haasan and Emilia Schüle, Treadstone premieres Tuesday on USA at 10 p.m. ET/PT.

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