Rabbit Hole Review: Kiefer Sutherland's New Series Is Your Dad's New Favorite Show, And Maybe Yours, Too [SXSW 2023]

Is the television landscape complete without a show where Kiefer Sutherland growls and punches his way through a world full of people who mean him harm? Clearly not, as the new Paramount+ series "Rabbit Hole" makes it abundantly clear how much dads and dads-at-heart everywhere have missed this. The two episodes that screened at the SXSW Film Festival represent the kind of meat-and-potatoes, no-frills espionage goodness that's sometimes missing in the age of high-concept television. This is the kind of show focused more on delivering familiar goods and making sure the goods work rather than breaking new ground, and quite frankly, that's more than enough.

Also quite frankly: it's the kind of show that knows what audiences want out of Sutherland and delivers that ... while also tweaking his persona just enough to keep viewers on their toes.

Sutherland, updated

Fans of "24," the endlessly problematic but ridiculously entertaining FOX action series that turned Sutherland into a TV star, will find instant comfort here. The former Jack Bauer is now John Weir, a grizzled, gruff, and agreeably weary freelance espionage operative who specializes in manipulation and deceit — you pay him, and his team can fabricate narratives and moments that can shift the stock market or ruin lives of the rich and powerful. When we first meet Weir, he's found some degree of comfort: he's well-established, good at his job, and in the age of "fake news" and deep fakes, he's in more demand than ever.

So of course someone frames him for murder. Of course, his entire life is blown to pieces. And of course, he has to team up with his latest one-night stand to clear his name, dragging her on a whirlwind tour through a paranoid landscape where nothing is it seems, no one can be trusted, etc. And to the shows' credit, Weir has a bit of Gene Hackman's Harry Caul in his DNA: his paranoia defines him and acts as his greatest strength and his greatest weakness. Sutherland plays him as less of a killing machine (unlike Jack Bauer, fistfights seem to be an even match for him) and more like the smartest, wiliest guy in the room. Sutherland's trademark growl now serves as a sign of instinctual intelligence rather than an action hero persona. He rasps at his enemies, shoves them against walls to demand answers, and generally delivers what you want out of a Sutherland performance, even if it's been tweaked for an actor who is a decade removed from playing a more straightforward action hero. 

And perhaps also an actor interested in deeper introspection, as flashbacks reveal a traumatizing childhood that lingers still, offering Sutherland a fresh edge to his TV persona. 

The second episode hooks you

While there is an enjoyable comfort in the familiar elements of Sutherland's performance, and in the familiar tropes on display in the opening stretch of "Rabbit Hole," the series comes to proper life as it slowly starts to unveil its freak flag. Series creators John Requa and Glenn Ficarra (who wrote and directed the two episodes screened at the premiere) bury the lede a bit here, opening "Rabbit Hole" as a fairly straightforward procedural and then pulling the rug out from under you so slowly that you start to wonder if you're missing something. No, you're not missing something. The show is just easing you into a world where nothing as it seems, and where massive reveals and twists arrive unexpectedly in unlikely conversations. It's to the credit of "Rabbit Hole" that the show expects you to keep up.

This also means that the second episode is superior to the first. The premiere episode is perfectly fine and frequently entertaining enough, but its number one job seems to be planting the seeds that start to blossom in the second hour. Once we know Weir, Sutherland is able to start getting a bit weirder and a bit funnier, utilizing his trademark deadpan for unlikely comedy (a scene involving a hammer and a hiding place is a standout). And the show itself follows suit, revealing bit-by-bit that these characters haven't been honest with you and that the truth lurks in the margins. The second episode effectively rewrites what the series is actually about, pulling you in as it decides to show, not tell, that everything is not what it seems.

And then it has the nerve to conclude with a character introduction so entertaining (and played by an actor so welcome) that I already know I'll be checking out the rest of the series when it hits streaming.

Long live dad TV

I often joke about great "dad" shows, a line-up that includes "Bosch," "Yellowstone," and "Reacher." You know the type. But I say this with affection. I may not have children, but I'm a dad at heart when it comes to shows like this, enjoying the macho and the pulpy, tales of Men Being Men and Dudes Being Dudes, of hardboiled anti-heroes going up against enemies who deserve some kind of righteous justice. "Rabbit Hole" checks the usual boxes, but it also starts to scribble outside the margins in ways that are intriguing and funny and suggest that major surprises lurk around the corner.

"Rabbit Hole" isn't high art. It's not peak TV. But peak TV is waning. Dad shows will never die. And I wish more dad shows grabbed my interest like this one.

"Rabbit Hole" premieres on March 26, 2023 on Paramount+.