Threat Matrix: Pilot (2003) TV Review

More “CSI” than “The Agency”, the new ABC show “Threat Matrix” is based on an actual document of the same name that details all threats against America in any given day. The show revolves around a small group of experts from various intelligence agencies; their job is to take the threat matrix seriously and investigate, and if necessary, act. The lead is Jamie Denton (TV’s “Pretender”), who stars as John Kilmer, the sturdy head of the unit. His right-hand man (or woman, in this case) is Kelly Rutherford, playing Frankie Kilmer, Kilmer’s ex-wife and the unit’s field operative. Will Lyman play the unit’s White House liaison, the one who appears on TV to lie — er, inform — the press.

The pilot opens like a lot of pilots nowadays — quick, flashy, and completely devoid of extraneous bits. It’s basically a 2-hour episode crunched into 45 minutes, resulting in a whirlwind of images, quick characterization, and at the same time setting the tone and look of the series for episodes to follow. The pilot opens with the team easily infiltrating an American missile silo and stealing its contents, but that’s just in the Teaser. The rest of the episode concerns an Al Qaeda plot to send suicide bombers into America via shipping containers. As Kilmer and the team uses every fandangle spy gadget known to man — and some still unknown — to track the culprits, Frankie is in Jakarta extracting information from a drug dealer in cahoots with the terrorists.

The pilot of “Threat Matrix” does one thing well — it really moves. When I say that this is essentially a 2-hour episode shoved into a 45-minute hole, I do not exaggerate. If a comparison can be made, it’s this: “Threat Matrix” is the MTV version of the recently cancelled “The Agency”, which was about the inner workings of the CIA. That other show tried to take the adult approach, filling each episode with ambiguities and heavy shades of gray, and there was just as much fireworks in the office as there were in the field. “Threat Matrix”, like the current climate of the American government, is streamlined in shades of white and black, good and bad, and high-tech versus low-tech.

The best thing about the pilot is Kelly Rutherford (“Melrose Place”), who shines in the few and brief scenes she’s in. While in Jakarta, Frankie is betrayed and hunted by members of the same terrorist cell that Kilmer is seeking back home. Frankie proves to be a formidable opponent, but not so Superwoman that she wins every fight. And since Frankie is the most human of the group, her relationship with ex-husband Kilmer is also the episode’s most welcome moments. It helps that when the two gets together, rather in person or by phone, the viewer is spared the whirlwind of CGI satellites and high-tech junk that is so pervasive in many shows nowadays. I guess CGI satellites spinning around in space and the camera piercing through phone lines is really groovy. I don’t particularly care for it myself. (You can blame “CSI” for the trend.)

The most curious thing about spy shows is that they’re very easy to sell; studio suits seem to really love the ideas. Except the public never seems to care for them all that much. You can count on one hand the number of serious spy shows that’s survived past their first season. Of those, “Alias” seems to have a good head of steam, but maybe that’s because the show could care less about being reality-driven. “The Agency”, a terrific show, couldn’t survive a second season. The verdict: it was just too smart for an American public that demands fast-moving, glitzy, and superficial shoot’em-ups — everything “Alias” does so well.

Having said that, “Threat Matrix” seems to fit the public’s idea of what a spy show should be. Rather that’s a good thing or a bad thing depends on your definition of “quality TV”, but it might give the show a shot at lasting past its first year. The pilot was certainly vastly entertaining, even if it didn’t provide anything remotely unique. Except, perhaps, for the method by which Kilmer and company disposed of the suicide bomber. I have to admit, I didn’t see it coming. Priceless, I tell you.

CAST: Jamie Denton …. John Kilmer
Kelly Rutherford …. Frankie Ellroy Kilmer
Paul Webster …. Det. Joe Miller
Mahershala Karin-Ali …. Jelani
Shoshannah Stern …. Holly Brodeen
Kurt Caceres …. Tim Vargas