Although it's based on the 2012 bestselling fantasy novel by Daniel O'Malley and was initially produced by Twilight author Stephenie Meyer (who left over creative differences), there's little indication in Starz's grim spy thriller The Rook that it came from a vibrant world filled with dragons, monsters and, yes, vampires.
The story has been refashioned by series creators Al Blyth and Sam Holcroft as a run-of-the-mill spy drama with added superpowers, but the characters' extraordinary abilities are deployed in such a subdued way that it seems like the producers are almost ashamed of having to include them.
Rather than fantasy creatures, the superpowered characters on The Rook are more like Marvel's mutants; a small percentage of the population is born with extraordinary powers (the show calls them "extreme variant abilities," or EVAs). Protagonist Myfanwy Thomas (Emma Greenwell) is one of them, although she isn't aware of it when the show begins with her lying on the ground near a bridge in London, surrounded by dead bodies.
With no memory of who she is or what she's done, Myfanwy initially goes on the run, but she's soon brought back in by the Checquy, the U.K.'s secret agency for dealing with EVAs. Myfanwy learns she's a Rook in the Checquy (all of the operatives are ranked like chess pieces) and that she's been targeted by rogue EVA hunters known as Vultures, who track down EVAs and auction them off as slave labor.
As she goes back to work, Myfanwy naturally can't trust any of her colleagues, from the organization's outwardly supportive King, Linda Farrier (Joely Richardson), to the shifty Queen, Conrad Grantchester (Adrian Lester), to the fellow Rook known as Gestalt, who is a single consciousness inhabiting four bodies (played by Ronan Raftery, Catherine Steadman, and Jon Fletcher as identical twins).
There's also an American agent, Monica Reed (Olivia Munn), who's inserted herself into the investigation because one of those bodies surrounding Myfanwy belonged to her former colleague.
Myfanwy's EVA is the ability to transmit electromagnetic impulses via her skin, while Conrad can change the chemical composition of the atmosphere and Monica has super strength. They use these abilities so sparingly, though, that it's easy to forget they have them at all, and the creators seem reluctant to deploy anything even remotely resembling flashy special effects. So, the only indication that the characters are using their powers are pained looks on their faces and tense music on the soundtrack.
Gestalt is the only character whose powers are depicted creatively and effectively, and the three actors move impressively in unison, sharing each other's emotions and actions and seamlessly finishing each other's thoughts, even if they're in entirely different locations. Gestalt is also the focus of the series' best action sequences, which are far too infrequent for a show about superpowered spies. Monica's main use of her super strength involves forcing open a locked door.
The characters are hiding so many secrets that almost all of them come across as ciphers, and even Myfanwy, who's in constant inner turmoil, doesn't have much of a personality. The dialogue is mostly clipped and functional, matching the anonymous visual style and the drab, gray office where the characters work.
Myfanwy is more or less a file clerk, whose job functions seem to mostly involve signing a lot of documents (when she bothers to show up at the office at all). The opening scene of the first episode suggests something like The Bourne Identity with superpowers, but the creators drain most of the urgency from the situation halfway through that same episode.
Old pros Richardson and Lester give their scheming bureaucrats a level of menace, but they're not particularly compelling villains (if they're even villains at all), and the Vultures lack a central mission or leader to make them into worthy antagonists. What's left is Myfanwy's battle with herself, exemplified by the various notes that her pre-amnesic self left practically everywhere, warning her away from certain people and places, or giving her brief tidbits about her job and her life. Greenwell's performance doesn't add much to the character, either, and Myfanwy's motivations seem to shift from scene to scene.
At least Greenwell isn't as irritating as Munn, who goes too far in making Monica the brash, loud American and ends up coming off like she's trying to force energy and excitement out of a series that provides neither. No amount of insisting on its own significance can make the show feel relevant (a few nods to the omnipresence of surveillance in London are the closest it gets to social commentary). The promise of the opening scene is slowly squandered, episode by episode. A few monsters or vampires really would have livened things up.
Starring Emma Greenwell, Joely Richardson, Adrian Lester, Catherine Steadman, Jon Fletcher, Ronan Raftery and Olivia Munn, The Rook premieres Sunday at 8 p.m. ET/PT on Starz.