The biggest problem I had with the almost decent Season 1 of Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan was that its hero Jack Ryan (John Krasinski) was as spicy as flour. Even with Krasinski's built-in charm, this version of Tom Clancy's book-selling hero was a bore, which isn't a good thing when his name is right there in the title. As an origin story, Season 1 showed us the dull, slow transformation of Jack from a CIA analyst highlighting numbers at a desk to CIA operative shooting terrorist leaders in the streets. Season 1 relied heavily on Krasinski's charisma to carry the character, giving us a new take on the classic hero. Ehh, don't mess with the classics.
Season 2 of Jack Ryan simplifies things down and is all the better for it. No longer a CIA rookie, this Jack Ryan has toughened up so much that he barely wears a tie! New Jack angrily pounds tables with his fists, screams at suspects in custody, and gets into fistfights with presidents of foreign countries (for real!). He also pulls female spies into bed with him and amicably bickers with his superior Greer (the superior Wendell Pierce), lest you think he's all business. It's nothing groundbreaking and there's not a lot of effort put into making Jack Ryan unique, which is exactly the kind of hero a series like this needs. And Krasinski elevates the character simply by the fact that we just want to pinch his cheeks. Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan is meat-and-potatoes spy thriller entertainment, and now has its equally accessible character to drive it.
This time around, trouble's brewing in Venezuela, which Jack is quick to point out is a more tangible threat to the United States than North Korea, China, or Russia. Taking us away from the everyday headlines of those three countries is refreshing, even if Jack Ryan's political viewpoints are altered for a more U.S.-centric story. And make no mistake, Jack Ryan's view of Venezuela's problems is decidedly RAH-RAH-AMERICA, where the Stars & Stripes are the only thing that can save Venezuela from an evil dictatorship of its own doing. But that's what Jack Ryan should be: Comfort viewing for conservative and centrists who fancy themselves patriots and wrap themselves in flags.
Gone from Season 1 is the villain stealing the show, a tangential moral story (remember the drone pilot?), and any unnecessary attempt at romance for Jack, and in are secret ops missions down the Orinoco River, the mysterious assassination of a U.S. senator, and a pivotal election that will decide the country's future. These take Jack Ryan away from aspiring to be prestige television, but they make Season 2 the more fully realized series it always should have been. It's better to have a good OK show than a bad show that tries to be great.
The cast also gets a boost from new characters. Krasinski and Pierce's playful antagonism is given a third leg by Michael Kelly (House of Cards, Person of Interest) as Mike November, the CIA's chief of station in Venezuela. Kelly was born to play roles like this — authoritative government types who take no sh-- but also show an understanding side — and the show is at its best when all three share the screen. Mike suggests election interference (it feels better to be on this side of it) in Venezuela's impending run-off, leading us to the dictator's chief political rival Gloria Bonalde, a voice for democracy boldly brought to life by Colombian actress Cristina Umaña (Narcos). Though largely at the whim of American interference in getting an honest election in the books, Bonalde's energizing of the Venezuelan people is a nice contrast to President Reyes' (Jordi Molla) boot on them. The villains are also a better fit this season. Instead of stealing the spotlight from Jack as Suleiman did in Season 1, Reyes and an international assassin (played by Game of Thrones' Jaqen H'ghar, Tom Wlaschiha) have just enough nuance to deepen them the right amount before Jack kicks their asses.
But you probably won't be thinking about any of this as you watch Season 2 of Jack Ryan. It's built as a simple watch with moments of thrilling action, beautiful global landscapes, and easy-to-follow political intrigue. It all comes together around this new version of Jack Ryan, who got better by getting less complicated.
TV Guide Rating: 3/5
Season 2 of Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan premieres Friday, Nov. 1 on Amazon.