Among his other credits, the former journalist Mark Boal has written Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker, and that alone probably tells you a lot of what you can expect from Echo 3, the new show he created for Apple TV+. First off, it’s edge-of-your-seat drama, with interest at every moment, and the kind of show that’s bound to succeed. Second, there will be plenty of people who don’t love its politics. This is a story about two Delta Force operatives trying to rescue a loved one in the jungles of Colombia, and while there is no overt hero worship here—they’re imperfect people outside of combat, and even within combat they sometimes make egregious errors—the tone is similar to Boal’s previous projects in that beneath the surface there is a sense that, for all their flaws, they are still demi-gods.
Which, frankly, is not uncommon in any genre that involves aspects of violence, whether we’re talking about detectives or spies or western gunslingers. The fact that it involves the American military—even its unsanctioned offshoots—will be the difference here, and that dalliance with imperialism is probably worth addressing up front, if only to say “your mileage may vary.” And, I guess, as fair warning: if you found yourself enjoying Boal’s previous work, only to consider the implications afterward, you’re probably in for a similar experience here. And Boal would probably tell you that he is also considering those implications within the show, but as in Zero Dark Thirty especially, that introspection can feel a bit thin in the face of what feels like a broader endorsement. We are American viewers watching likable, strong Americans with awe-inspiring capabilities try to save a family member from foreign political radicals in the scary wilds of a strange land. For the average consumer, or even a savvy consumer, that dramatic thrust comes with a lot of power, and can overwhelm the minor shortcomings of the demi-gods themselves—even when the writers and directors want you to see them.
Personally, Echo 3 belonged to that class of show that I knew I would like within about 30 seconds of watching the first episode. The first three shots are a Malick-like glimpse through sunlit trees, an alligator swimming in a mud-brown river, and the impression of a tree against that river to the call of a bird. I have been on a run of reviewing mediocre shows, it seems, to the point that I started to wonder if I were just becoming increasingly picky or grumpy, and I made a mental note after these three shots to remember my gut instinct, which was that whatever was coming next, it would be very well-made. It’s hard to explain what the hell I actually mean here, except that the framing, the sound, and the overall aesthetic felt immediately competent and beautiful and anticipatory at once. A teacher of mine once said she would tell within a minute whether she would enjoy a film, and while I do not have that ability, here, somehow, it was apparent.
Before long, we meet Amber Chesborough (Jessie Collins), a scientist who is in the Colombian jungles to conduct research into the medical benefits of rare psychedelics (a bit of a cliche, this botanical salvation, but not a major focus of the actual story). She and her team are being held at gunpoint, though we don’t exactly know why. The action then jumps back to her wedding day, when she marries Prince (Michael Huisman, who you may remember as the more fun of the two Daario Naharis actors), a delta force operative and the son of a Washington D.C. bigwig. She seeks reassurance from her brother Bambi (Luke Evans), another delta force operative and Prince’s friend. These three are the triangle at the heart of Echo 3, and they’re each tremendous in their own ways. (It’s especially wild that when casting the roles of two extremely manly American men, the creators chose a Welshman in Evans and a Dutchman in Huisman.)
The first episode moves along at an assured pace, establishing relationships and mostly but not always avoiding the stoic clipped military patois that can become a cliche in lesser hands. The series begins to take off during a snowy sequence in Afghanistan halfway through that pilot. It’s a gorgeous set piece, set to gorgeous music as it reaches a tragic conclusion, and from that moment the quality is beyond dispute. The action moves to Colombia soon after, there to stay at least in the episodes made available to critics, and the writing and directing maintains its excellence (it was interesting to see the names Andre and Maria Jacquemetton, former Mad Men stalwarts, pop up in the teleplay credits).
It’s a rare show that manages to balance riveting action with an almost poetic rhythm, but the contrasts exist in concert here, and broadly, this is yet another show that proves how far Apple TV+ has gone beyond its competitors in greenlighting great television. It will be hard to begrudge those who balk at what can seem like a subtle endorsement of an imperial system here—the fact that the villains are never really given a coherent political philosophy that might engender any sympathy feels like a narrative failure very much in line with the underlying allegiances at play—but aesthetically, Echo 3 is a masterpiece. How each viewer sorts that out is, of course, his or her business, but these are thoughts that come later; in the moment, the show is so well constructed that immersion feels like the only option.
Echo 3 premieres Wednesday, November 23rd on Apple TV+.
Shane Ryan is a writer and editor. You can find more of his writing and podcasting at Apocalypse Sports, and follow him on Twitter here .
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