“American Odyssey,” the new NBC espionage drama premiering Sunday night at 10, has one gripping tale to tell. The problem is, there are three tales embedded in its framework, which includes familiar elements — the tension of “24” and the intrigue of “Homeland” — that add up to something less than the sum of its parts.
Partially shot around Boston, the series charts the course of a trio of deeply unfortunate people caught up in a globe-spanning conspiracy that is touched off by the ambush of a platoon of US soldiers shortly after they have killed an important Al Qaeda leader in Africa.
One soldier, Sergeant Odelle Ballard (Anna Friel, “Limitless”) survives the attack and manages to store damning evidence on a flash drive. But she faces endless, brutal obstacles on her way back to US soil as she tries to alert her family that she is alive.
Back in New York, former US attorney Peter Decker (Peter Facinelli, “Nurse Jackie”) stumbles onto information that his new private-sector bosses are working on a merger involving the company that bankrolled the jihadists. And in a park near Decker’s office, trust fund baby Harrison Walters (Jake Robinson, “The Carrie Diaries”) is a leader in an “Occupy”-style protest who likewise learns that not only is the attack being misrepresented, but that Ballard is alive. He starts digging for the truth in the tradition of his investigative journalist father.
While the show begins in the chaos of the attack in Mali and jams a near impenetrable amount of noise and information into the pilot — dates, names, corporations, real and fictional terror groups, family members, languages, gun battles all come in rapid-fire succession — it does eventually straighten itself out into a watchable narrative.
But only Ballard’s story is really worthy of attention. Friel is a fierce presence — she’s aided by the gifted young actor Omar Ghazaoui as her captor turned helper — and she is the only main character over the first five episodes that were available for review who doesn’t seem to continually make poor decisions. Even then her story toggles between so many belief-defying strokes of luck and scenes of violence that it can be tough to watch it play out.
Some of the problem is baked into the show’s structure. When the audience knows more than the characters do, they can get impatient. It does not help that the Facinelli and Robinson characters are repeatedly slow on the uptake when it comes to handling sensitive information that might have an impact on their lives.
Smaller head-scratching moments can also take viewers out of the action. For instance, you know how you can check your e-mail on a smartphone? Well, apparently the genius hacker of “American Odyssey” — who is slightly loony and lives with his mom — and the people around him haven’t heard this news; they accept that he has to go home to Brooklyn, N.Y., to forward a Web-based e-mail.
In addition to Friel, the always-welcome Treat Williams (“Everwood”) is a bright spot as a crooked colonel.
If “American Odyssey” is going to succeed, several of its characters will need to smarten up, and it will have to count on viewers’ eagerness to learn the answers to its central questions: Will Ballard make it home? Will Decker be vindicated? Will Walters blow the lid off the conspiracy? Five episodes in, it seems like a long shot.