Can a TV drama drive you to despair?

NBC's exciting, highly addictive War on Terror conspiracy thriller American Odyssey tells a tale so gripping, terrifying, and utterly bleak, it may well become the first to pull off that feat.

And that's a good thing.

Premiering at 10 p.m. Sunday on NBC10, the series is about a cadre of highly placed executives in the military-industrial complex who are so well-funded and well-organized, so efficient, deadly, and ruthless and so utterly dedicated to their murky, shadowy goal, they seem impossible to defeat.

After the first five episodes, I felt hopeless, desperate, and hankering for more. (Please, NBC, send more!)

Brit beauty Anna Friel (Pushing Daisies, Having You) stars as Odelle Ballard, a member of a special forces team that, in the first minutes of the pilot, manages to hunt down and kill a top al-Qaeda boss in West Africa.

The troops find intelligence in the dead terrorist's hideout, including evidence that an American company called SOC had sent his terror cell $30.5 million. The team is told by their beloved, avuncular C.O., Col. Stephen Glen (Treat Williams) to leave the intel for an incoming team of experts - who happen to be private military contractors, who show up and slaughter the entire team - save for Odelle, who manages to escape.

American Odyssey moves among several settings, subplots, and characters to reveal a far-reaching conspiracy that seems to touch every known institution. The pace is rapid, at times breathless, but the writers always manage to keep the viewer on top of the action.

There are some good guys, including an investment-bank investigator (Peter Facinelli) who grows suspicious of SOC, and a young Occupy Wall Street activist (Jake Robinson), who realizes out of the blue the American military is covering up the death of its super team.

As Odelle tries to make her way back home - chased by Islamist killers and mercenaries alike - the bad guys at SOC start killing or buying off the good guys.

Though it makes several seriously absurd leaps of logic, American Odyssey will be a must-see for conspiracy lovers. The show's only real downside is that its utterly hyperbolic and sensationalistic tone overshadows and obscures some of the real political issues it touches upon, including the growing power of corporations to wage war, the effect of the income gap on the middle class, and the salutary role grassroots organizing can play in a democracy.

Philadelphia's revolution

Philadelphia: The Great Experiment, Sam Katz's ongoing series of half-hour documentaries about the city's history, keeps getting better with each installment.

The research always has been impeccable, as have the on-camera expert interviews. But what's especially impressive about the ninth episode, "The Storm: 1765-1793," is how it manages to render one of the most familiar and repeated stories from our history - the American Revolution - so exciting, invigorating, alive.

Airing Thursday at 7:30 p.m. on 6ABC, the episode articulates the rising discontent Philadelphia's artisans felt over the imposition of a new series of taxes in the 1760s.

As always, the doc focuses not only on the city's rich and famous but provides portraits of ordinary citizens, including upholsterer's apprentice Betsy Griscom, whose livelihood was endangered by the crown's financial decisions.

Ben Franklin, who was at court in London at the time, wasn't keen to voice his fellow Philadelphians' anger. He was too busy trying to sell a vision of Philadelphia as the future capital of the British Empire.

Eventually, he rallied to the side of the Revolutionaries, as did Thomas Paine and Benjamin Rush. The doc follows their debates, which culminated in the writing of the Declaration of Independence.

TELEVISION

American Odyssey

Premieres 10 p.m. Sunday on NBC10.

Philadelphia: The Great Experiment

"The Storm: 1765-1793"

7:30 p.m. Thursday on 6ABC. Online at www.historyofphilly.com.

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tirdad@phillynews.com 215-854-2736