'Condor' lands as '70s-style paranoid thrillers migrate to TV

The 1970s were considered the Golden Age of movie paranoia, with taut thrillers like "The Parallax View," "Three Days...

Posted: May 25, 2018 6:39 AM
Updated: May 25, 2018 6:39 AM

The 1970s were considered the Golden Age of movie paranoia, with taut thrillers like "The Parallax View," "Three Days of the Condor," "The Conversation" and "Marathon Man," informed to varying degrees by a Watergate-era sensibility.

The current media landscape has seen its own resurgence of that genre, but with the wrinkle that many of these who-can-you-trust stories have shifted from the big screen to television.

A direct example of that migration occurs in June, with the premiere of "Condor" landing on AT&T's Audience Network. The premium-style drama -- which boasts an impressive supporting cast that includes William Hurt, Bob Balaban, Mira Sorvino and Brendan Fraser -- stars Max Irons as Joe Turner (the role originally played by Robert Redford), a CIA analyst who stumbles upon a nefarious scheme that puts him in the crosshairs of some very bad people, while leaving him uncertain as to who in the government he can trust.

The show happens to arrive around the same time BBC America will conclude the first season of "Killing Eve," an off-kilter drama with its own set of twists and turns, featuring Sandra Oh as an intelligence analyst tracking a shadowy female assassin across Europe. And "Condor" isn't the only '70s movie that has made a comeback in series form, with Michael Crichton's "Westworld" having found a home on HBO, probing uncomfortable questions -- albeit from a new angle -- about artificial intelligence and technology run amok.

These shows join a number of series that have roots in the Sept. 11 terror attacks but which harbor echoes of the formula that held sway in the '70s. They include "Homeland," "Mr. Robot" and to an extent "The Americans," the FX drama rooted in the Cold War, which will conclude its six-season run on May 30.

There are several reasons the paranoid thriller has largely shifted to TV, perhaps foremost because the kind of mid-sized, character-driven stories these films exemplified has been relegated to a cinematic no-man's land, lost between special-effects-driven blockbusters and small independent films.

Television, moreover, offers the latitude to tease out games of cat and mouse, although that poses its own set of challenges, as evidenced by the creative contortions of "Homeland" in its later seasons and Fox's misguided revival of "The X-Files," which in its heyday was a classic of the genre, albeit with a supernatural twist.

The British and Danish have been especially good at mining this territory, yielding an assortment of shows that now reach the U.S. via avenues like Netflix and content-hungry cable networks.

The new "Condor," it's worth noting, doesn't quite take flight in its opening episodes, a reminder that translating such a concept into a series isn't always an easy process.

Still, the current climate for such fare does appear relatively hospitable, for a variety of reasons. Looking back at the '70s for the Daily Beast, Adam Sternbergh wrote that the movies of that era reflected "cultural by-products of a widespread societal freak-out."

For many immersed in today's 24/7 news cycle, that might sound like a fair description of where we are now.

"Killing Eve" and "The Americans" end their seasons on May 27 and May 30, respectively. "Condor" premieres June 6 on Audience Network.

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