“I’m not gonna tell you again. Stay off my list.”
It’s a meme-able line, almost reminiscent of Harrison Ford’s “get off my plane” from Air Force One, the kind of guttural one-second trailer blip that makes a story’s target audience and muscle and narrative ambition pretty clear. But it is leveled by Chris Pratt, played with an occasional thousand-yard stare so vacuous, so PTSD-soured that it looks like he’s either forgotten his dialogue or is taking a beat to consider how the winding paths of his varied career got him here . Critics’ Choice comedy player, lovable character actor, Marvel and Warner animation lead, huge movie star … these days, Andy from Parks And Rec can, of course, tackle whatever role he wants, including the type of guy who recognizes a hitman just by his wraparound shades.
The Terminal List is peak dad prestige TV, a political thriller straight from the playbook of Tom Clancy, with the bestseller-list trappings of Lee Child and others so capable of framing bloody revenge tales around characters with names that demand your voice drop an octave when spoken aloud: Jack Ryan, Jack Reacher. In this case, we have James Reece, as penned by Jack Carr, a former Navy Seal who holds the distinction that the FAA has mandated no domestic flight can takeoff without at least one middle-aged passenger reading one of his books. He writes muscularly about guys with muscles who call each other “brother” and refer to teammates as “my boys” and discuss objectives in terms like “this motherfucker is bear” and grow lush beards and pick each other up from the airport in Jeeps with lines like “don’t tell me you’re calling a fucking Uber” while a butt-rock version of “Simple Man” blasts from the stereo. There are acronyms, oh so many acronyms—IED, SOP, QRF—tossed knowingly with practiced company-man aplomb. You almost wish someone knowledgable would manifest on the couch next to you to simply explain that “QRF” is short for “Quick Reaction Force.”
The archetypal flavor profiles are all here: patriotism, heroism, duty, fellowship, shirtless knife-and-gun fights. Also, there is summertime popcorn appeal, for us armchair schlubs to follow along, be a bit awe-inspired, and pay witness to the high purpose of communal badassery.
The action opens with a Seal Team Seven job gone awry, in which an ambush turns into a 15-minute bloodbath. Hurried whispers of “access points” and “trip wires” lead to a cavalcade of yelling and grunts and fire and wounds and night-vision-type contraptions and neon-orange lines emanating from machine guns shot by folks wearing tactical gear.
By the end, it all just looks like a lot to clean up. Postured explanations are leveraged at disbelieving superiors and investigators: “That’s not how it went down.” There is more than a hint of red-state chest thumping, too—a suspect is chided for drinking “light” beer, Bryson DeChambeau has a cameo, and there’s a cited verse from the Bible. Also in the mix are Taylor Kitsch as Ben, an incorrigible good-natured bad-influence buddy we know is like a brother because he says “I am your brother.” And Constance Wu plays Katie, a war journalist who only cares about the truth. You know because she says, “all I care about is the truth.” Jeanne Tripplehorn is the Secretary of Defense, a whole cloth TV land politician, obvious because she speaks of “leaving things better than I found them.”
The Terminal List mostly pops with the nuance of an M-16, coming off like a bloody, predictable, testosterone-charged romp that makes occasional detours toward melancholia. After all, following such an open there are funerals to tend to. And though he’s given chances to opt out, Reece stands there, stoic in shades and Navy formals, letting you know these lips don’t quiver. There is a deeply human story here, as he deals with memory confusion, untrustworthy flashbacks, general fuzziness, and headaches. A doctor flippantly discusses concussion “repercussions” like the Seals were a late-’80s NFL team. Hints of sadness creep in, a bit of pathos, almost—we don’t really get a picture of who those guys in those caskets were. It really feels like a relief when Pratt’s personality, that easy neighborly goof charm, briefly emerges with a bucatini joke halfway through the third episode. There are such moments, fleeting off-ramps that could allow an approach like Nico Walker’s Cherrywith its dark absurdist poetry of military pursuit, or a devastating portrait of PTSD as seen in the 2018 film Leave No Trace.
But the show is really about the procedure of uncovering and the business of revenge—“Answers or blood?” as Ben asks. Reece’s late-night brow-furrowed Google searches, operated while popping pills and bottles of beer, lead to a chemist outside of Aleppo, the Seals’ original target. It’s hard not to picture Burt Macklin here, but with Reece’s man-of-war cave in Coronado, the show seems to fancy itself a kind of True Detective (an aesthetic from which the opening credits borrow generously). There is a brooding but bent machismo, with such a fist-engaged will that the series feels on the verge of a boxing-movie training montage. Reece begins on his odyssey (“this is personal,” he says) toward varying levels of military contract-type baddies, some with offices and lairs absurdly fit for a Bond villain. Here is an altruistic man on fire, with, yes, a unique set of skills, the kind who knows when “we need to get off the grid,” or how to keep your cell phone from acting as a tracking device, who’s increasingly alone and further alienated. With the show, Carr seems to ask: Who can you trust but your gun? Another acronym, LLTB, or, “Long Live The Brotherhood,” is engraved on one piece—and you understand most of what he is getting at.
The Terminal List aspire to be a thinking person’s thriller, but it’s neither too thinky nor too thrilling. But damn if it doesn’t feel a bit invigorating at times to go down the dark hallways of this world of people of action, and think, yeah, this motherfucker is ours.