While superhero movies remain Hollywood’s blockbusters du jour, not even new entries from the Marvel Cinematic Universe could compete with Top Gun: Maverick in 2022. After earning nearly $1.5 billion at the box office, Maverick won’t go down as just the highest-grossing film of the year: It’s also the commercial pinnacle of Tom Cruise’s career. Maverick’s success can be attributed to many things: nostalgia for the original Top Gun, Cruise’s enduring appeal as an action star, Cruise’s unflinching desire to risk his life for our entertainment by piloting an actual fighter jet. But one key takeaway from the movie that lit up the box office has perhaps flown under the radar: Audiences have been starved for Dad Cinema in recent years, and Maverick was a five-course meal of it.
For those of us feeling superhero fatigue, an old-school crowd-pleaser like Maverick is a powerful reminder that contemporary blockbusters don’t have to be so homogenous. Hopefully, Maverick will convince major studios that it’s worth pouring more resources into projects that could be classified as Dad Cinema. (Michael Mann’s Ferrari can’t come soon enough.) In the meantime, you can still get something close to a Dad Cinema fix through its worthy small-screen counterpart: Dad TV.
As one might expect from the Peak TV era, there’s such an abundance of shows being made that some of them—whether it’s Peaky Blinders, Bosch, or Billions, just to name a few—inevitably cater to the dad demographic. But within the broader umbrella of Dad Television, Amazon Prime Video has cornered the market on a beloved subgenre: the political action-thriller. More specifically, I’m referring to shows that are loosely adapted from thriller novels and that I’ll call the Amazon Jacks: Jack Ryan, Reacher (the title character’s first name: Jack), and The Terminal List (the protagonist of the series is named James Reece, but it’s based on a book by—wait for it—former Navy SEAL Jack Carr). All three of these shows released a season in 2022, and while the Amazon Jacks are of varying degrees of quality, they scratch the same itch by following characters with a military background who don’t mind getting their hands dirty to save the day.
The Amazon Jacks adhere to a familiar template: The protagonist must protect our nation and its core values from wider conspiracies that threaten it and, in some cases, settle a personal score along the way. In Reacher, former military police officer turned rogue drifter Jack Reacher (played by the very large Alan Ritchson) goes to the fictional town of Margrave, Georgia, to investigate the death of his brother before uncovering a larger plot of corruption related to counterfeiting. The Terminal List sees the aforementioned Reece (Chris Pratt) narrowly survive an ambush in Syria that takes out the rest of his SEAL platoon, only to learn that trouble has followed him home and threatens those closest to him. And in the third season of Jack Ryan, the eponymous CIA analyst (John Krasinski) is in a race against time to stop Russian extremists from overthrowing the president—note: a fictional figure, not Vladimir Putin—and setting off a chain of events that could lead to World War III.
The setups are ridiculous, and that’s part of the fun: The best Jack Ryan adaptations lean into the inherent absurdity of one man—someone who, despite being a former marine, feels more at home behind a desk—being thrust into action for the sake of saving his country. (If anything, the biggest issue with the latest season of Jack Ryan is that our plucky analyst slots in a little too comfortably as a conventional action hero.) The other essential component is narrative misdirection: Just when you think you’ve gotten to the bottom of the core mystery, these shows love to throw a late curveball at the audience. For instance, it’s revealed at the end of Reacher’s first season that (spoiler alert) the FBI agent helping out Reacher has been part of the counterfeiting operation the whole time, while, like a Russian nesting doll, Jack Ryan Season 3 keeps unveiling new geopolitical conspirators, which, if nothing else, seems thematically appropriate.
To be clear, the Amazon Jacks will never be mistaken for a John le Carré thriller in terms of complexity and moral ambiguity. Rather, these series are at their best when they emulate the economy and pace of a really gripping and knowingly trashy airport novel. (Unsurprisingly, the authors behind Jack Ryan and Jack Reacher—the late Tom Clancy and Lee Child, respectively—are regarded as airport novel royalty.) It’s these very qualities that make the Amazon Jacks an acquired taste, especially when you consider that the minds behind the source material tend to lean conservative. Even if Clancy’s most famous fan hadn’t been Ronald Reagan, there was no mistaking the author’s politics; meanwhile, Carr believes that The Terminal List adaptation received overwhelmingly negative reviews because “there’s not this woke stuff that’s shoved into it.” (I would counter Carr’s trite complaint by pointing out the comparatively positive reception of Reacher and Jack Ryan, which are simply better shows.)
To enjoy these series, it’s best to appreciate the underlying popcorn appeal: the pulse-pounding action sequences, the hilariously exaggerated macho posturing, and the meat-and-potatoes plotting, which reaches a satisfying middle ground between a mindless Michael Bay explosion fest and prestige thrillers like Michael Clayton. I would suggest a drinking game in which you take a sip every time a character in one of these shows talks about serving their country, insults self-serving bureaucrats in government agencies, or says some variation of “we’ve had this all wrong” when there’s a last-minute twist. If you played, though, you’d probably end up in the hospital. But the shared characteristics of the Amazon Jacks are a feature, not a bug: The archetypal characters and settings can be embraced at face value or with the implicit understanding that it’s all a bit corny—either way, it’s irresistible fun. Put another way: If you unironically love the Predator handshake in all its silly glory, then these shows were made for you.
Given that Amazon has ordered new seasons of Reacher and Jack Ryan—Pratt has hinted that The Terminal List will also be renewed—there is evidently a market for this subset of Dad Television. Along with Paramount’s ever-growing Yellowstone empire, which is the most culturally significant small-screen Western franchise since Deadwood, one could argue that shows catering to dads are the surest bet on television right now outside of franchise extensions in Westeros, the MCU, and a galaxy far, far away. They won’t be for everyone, but for those looking to hop on the Dad Television bandwagon, Amazon’s trio of middlebrow thrillers is a great place to begin your mission.