Squawk Box: The Diplomat/Citadel

During the back half of our week in the UK we rented a cottage down in Somerset and used it as a base to go visit various relatives and enjoy the countryside-- but we also wanted to enjoy our cottage a little bit as well, so we checked out the Netflix one evening, found The Diplomat and decided to give it a go. We ended up wrapping up the first season when we got back to the States because it was one of those shows that you just couldn't stop watching.

I had no idea what to expect going in-- the previews made it seem like a sexy thriller type of a situation which I guess it kind of is, but it falls closer to the spiky/dramedy/political thriller end of the spectrum with a nice scoop of 'my, every main character is an attractive, sexy person'  than a straight up spiky/sexy thriller. The show begins with tensions high between the US and Iran and a British aircraft carrier is attacked in the Persian Gulf, resulting in the death of 41 sailors.

Expecting to be assigned to Afghanistan, but sent to London instead, is career diplomat Kate Wyler (Keri Russell) who accepts the assignment at the behest of President Rayburn (Michael McKean) and the White House Chief of Staff Billie Appiah (Nana Mensah). Tagging along with her is Hal (Rufus Sewell), her fellow diplomat and husband. Their marriage is on the rocks and they're both dropped into a situation they least expected to be in: one of the glamor assignments for diplomats- London. Posts like these typically go to political appointees, while the career diplomats head for countries off the beaten path like Afghanistan- which is where Wyler wanted to go, to begin with. 

Kate is introduced to her Deputy Chief of Mission Stuart (Ato Essandoh) and the CIA Station Chief Eidra Park (Ali Ahn) and immediately sets about trying to defuse the situation. The British Prime Minister, Nicol Trowbridge (Rory Kinnear) is looking for a muscular response. Kate is trying to defuse things until they can get definitive proof that Iran was behind the attack. In this, she has something of an ally in Foreign Secretary Austin Dennison (David Gyasi). Wyler begins a multi-pronged effort to keep her husband on a short enough leash that he's not going to piss anyone off, find the true culprit behind the attack on the British carrier, and keep the British from doing anything rash that Americans would be unable to support-- but while she's doing all of this, she finds out something else: she was given the assignment in London as an audition for another job: namely, Vice President.

She instantly hates the idea but between Hal and Stuart, they gradually get her to warm to the notion- at least a little bit. But while she's coming to grips with that, the crisis is deepening. Whoever did this, it apparently wasn't Iran (they drug Hal and reveal they called off an assassination to prove they're legitimate) and, as it turns out, it's not the Russians- not directly, but they offer up one of their mercenary leaders as a sign of their good faith. Every time Kate seems to be calming things down- or at least getting it resolved to an acceptable degree for the countries involved- something else seems to happen and just as Kate and Dennison think they've figured it out the season ends with a car blowing up- but happily, it's around been renewed for a second season.

Overall: I'm not an expert, but I feel comfortable in saying that the core of diplomacy as a concept is the relationship between people. And that's what sits and the heart of this show-- you could have made it about anything else- shit, this could have been called 'The Deli Owner' and it still would have come down to the writing, the cast, and the chemistry between the actors. I think the tighter focus on one crisis helps- as a posed to Madame Secretary which was more 'crisis of the week' mode for Tea Leoni and company to tackle with a myriad of problems to tackle, but ultimately this show is about people. It's taut, tight, sexy, funny, and moves along at a breakneck pace. No spoilers, but I saw someone saying they thought it jumped the shark in the final episode and it may well have, but I want to see how they land this particular plane in season two. It's certainly earned the opportunity to try. My Grade: **** out of ****

Stanley Tucci was what drew me to Citadel. That and the fact that I've always been a sucker for a good spy series and thought this would be worth a shot. They had Tucci. They had Richard Madden. They Priyanka Chopra Jonas. Everyone was sexy and attractive, there were exotic locales and interesting gadgets and it looked like it was going to be a lot of fun. And it is... but I'm just not sure there's anything particularly new that Citadel brings to the table. 

Citadel is a supranational spy organization that sort of runs around behind the scenes preventing various disasters over the course of its history. It's achieved a kind of semi-mythological status by the time show opens and naturally, if there's a force for good, there's got to be a force for evil and enter the shadowy counter-organization, Manticore that has spent years infiltrating Citadel and then takes it down in the first episode, leading to a very big explosion and Richard Madden and Priyanka Chopra Jones being separated and cut off for their tech guy, Orlick (Stanley Tucci.)

Then, Citadel makes an interesting choice that got my attention: it jumps forward eight years and Richard Madden is living happily in Oregon with his wife and kid and has no memory of his time as a superspy--so, we've got like a touch of Alias and now a dab of The Long Kiss Goodnight going on- and naturally, the inevitable happens and he's drawn back into his former life, courtesy of the man they believed dead eight years earlier, Orlick.

He sends Madden after the mysterious X Case, where his backup memories have been stored. (One of the Citadel's backup protocols in case of a breach is to wipe the memories of all of their agents which is a neat trick and certainly new, but they can implant them back in again.)  Soon enough, he leaves his wife and kid behind, goes to find Chopra Jones and they get back into the sexy spy game thing again.

There are only six episodes and I've technically only done half of the first season, but at the end of the third episode, it's revealed that the wife that Madden's character marries? She's in on the spy game too-- and at that point, I just sort of tapped out. Some connections are probably inevitable when it comes to the spy thriller genre, but not everyone needs to be connected. I'll imagine that I'll probably chew through the next three episodes and call it good, but this doesn't feel like a spy thriller. This borders on science fiction- which I'm with, but if you're going to double down on sexy tech, you should just embrace it and do all this shit in space or on Mars or something.

It's just okay. If you want something to eat popcorn to and just enjoy without thinking about it too much, this will work just fine for you, but it doesn't bring anything new to the table. Jack Ryan is a better spy thriller than this and more grounded in the real world. Alias might be showing its age by now, but even with its made-up spy agencies and often-times convoluted mythology, I'd still watch that again over this. Hell, I'm not even through the first episode of Class of '09 and that was more interesting than this is. And don't get me wrong: it's not boring and if you just want to be entertained, this will trip your trigger. I also reserve the right to change my mind if the back half of the season redeems the first half, but I'm not optimistic. My Grade: ** out of ****


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