You know how they pitch a project in Hollywood: “It’s a cross between The King’s Speech and Top Gun: Maverick!” Well, the pitch for The Diplomat — the new eight-episode series that, at this writing, has been the most-watched offering on Netflix for several days running — must’ve been easy: It’s The Crown (loads of grand English houses) meets Homeland (tons of international intrigue) meets The Americans (it stars Keri Russell!).
The Diplomat is the kind of series that wants to seem savvy about the way the world works.
Russell plays Kate Wyler, a career Foreign Service officer who, after serving in Beirut and Baghdad, expects to be the next U.S. envoy to Afghanistan. Instead, she’s named ambassador to the U.K. For most FSOs, this would be a coup; but for Kate, who’d been “hoping to save a shred of what we spent 2,500 American lives building” in the graveyard of empires, it’s a comedown.
There’s a reason for the unexpected job switcheroo: A British aircraft carrier has exploded off the Iranian coast, and Kate’s experience, at such a moment, makes her a better pick than some clueless political appointee. But there’s another angle that Kate, at the outset, doesn’t know about: U.S. President William Rayburn (Michael McKean) — a Biden replica, though less doddering and zoned out — may not last long, and, as it turns out, his female VP is, at best, months away from having to resign over a looming corruption scandal. (This series takes place in an alternative universe in which the legacy media actually expose Democratic Party corruption.) Unbeknownst to Kate, her wheeler-dealer husband, Hal (Rufus Sewell) — who’s a fellow FSO, with a legendary career — has been plotting to have her installed as veep when the incumbent resigns.
The London gig is, then, only part of a larger scheme. Kate finds out about it soon enough — and, just as she’s not thrilled with the Court of St. James’s, she’s not all that hot on being veep. But that’s the kind of serious FSO she is.
And so it’s off to Blighty, where Kate hits the ground running. In record time she’s confabbing with the PM, Nicol Trowbridge (Rory Kinnear) and the foreign secretary, Austin Dennison (David Gyasi), and checking in by video with her wily boss back in D.C., Secretary of State Miguel Ganon (Miguel Sandoval), who already wants to fire her.
The big question, of course, is: Who bombed the carrier? At first, Iran seems the likely culprit, but Hal suspects Russia. He and Kate wrangle over it. They wrangle over everything. (Their relationship, by turns explosive and affectionate, recalls that of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn in Adam’s Rib — and, at its worst, approaches Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner in The War of the Roses.) In any case, there’s immense pressure to come to a conclusion and act responsibly. The alternative could be World War III: As Kate tells Ganon, “We have an elderly president who just lost the House and a young VP who would like to prove that she likes to blow things up.”
Unable to keep his nose out of Kate’s business, Hal uses back channels to contact Rasoul Shahin (Bijan Daneshmand), a trusted contact in the Iranian government who’s described as the one person in Tehran “who doesn’t believe we’re the great Satan.” Shahin swears that Iran didn’t bomb the carrier. Yet the British public thinks otherwise. Muslims, we hear, “are being attacked in the streets” of London; Kate, who seems rather soft on the mullahs, calls a tough Iran speech by the trigger-happy Trowbridge “an Islamophobic war whoop.” (This series takes place in an alternate universe in which the terrorists in Europe are Christians and the victims are Muslims.)
Anyway, the finger of guilt starts pointing at Russia. Kate cooks up an action plan. Trowbridge likes it, then hates it, then likes it again. What’s going on there? Ganon rejects it, apparently for selfish political reasons. But nothing’s totally clear here, except that there are competing agendas all over the place — some of which may be downright sinister. Eventually Kate suspects that she can’t even rely on Hal. As tensions rise, trust plummets. And yet most of the major players still find time to shag one another, in various combinations.
The Diplomat was created by Debora Cahn, who was executive producer for the last two seasons of Homeland — you know, when it went soft on Islam. She also scripted a dozen-odd episodes of Aaron Sorkin’s lefty West Wing. That’s not surprising. Take this little detail: When Kate confronts the Russian ambassador over the carrier attack, he blames it on a band of Russia-based mercenaries — think the Wagner Group — whose leader, he insists, is acting independently of the Kremlin. “Should we blame your government,” he asks, “for the Proud Boys?” Not Antifa or BLM, which really are terrorist groups, but the Proud Boys!
As for the casting, you can certainly tell it’s 2023. Of the characters identified as “main” and “recurring,” fully half are non-white, which these days sounds about right. One of the white folks, moreover — an assistant to Kate — is a gender-ambiguous little person in a bowtie. I checked the credits to see if it was Ellen/Elliott Page. Nope. Then there’s Dennison’s sister, Cecilia (T’Nia Miller), a bald, statuesque black woman who swans around in eye-catching designer duds, acting as if she’s the bee’s knees; we’re plainly supposed to find her glamorous and fascinating, but she comes off as a freaky flibbertigibbet who’s wandered off the set of a TV series about the world of high-fashion modeling.
And Keri Russell? She’s as fine as ever. But her character reminds one less of Elizabeth in The Americans than of Carrie in Homeland. Smart but erratic, she curses like a sailor and drinks like a fish. And she’s impatient with formalities (for example, she hates giving speeches and wearing dresses) — an animus she expresses so often that one finds oneself wondering why she became a diplomat, of all things, in the first place.
It’s probably clear by now that The Diplomat is the kind of series that wants to seem savvy about the way the world works. That illusion, alas, is quickly broken when Kate refers to the British PM as a head of state. (How could none of the scores of people involved in this production have caught such an error?) In another scene, Kate uses “I” in the objective case. What an era we live in, when everybody’s got his or her own pronouns but nobody seems to understand the basic rules of pronoun usage!
But the big problem here is this: Terrifically convoluted though The Diplomat is, with tons of intrigue — twists on top of twists on top of twists — it’s also woefully static, with nary a killing or car chase in sight. While Homeland and The Americans were roller-coaster rides, The Diplomat, with a few exceptions, is an exceedingly talky drawing-room play, complete with tuxedos and cocktails. For much of its length, it brings to mind the second half of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, which consists of one civilized scene after another in which various duos earnestly discuss, as if it were a nuclear crisis, the proposed marriage of one couple’s daughter to the other couple’s son.
To be sure, some of the jaw-jawing in The Diplomat takes place not in drawing rooms but in corridors where the actors duplicate those widely mocked walk-and-talk sequences from The West Wing, the obvious purpose of which is to make it look as if something’s happening. Yes, the dialogue in question is engaging enough, but hey — this is the same Keri Russell whom, in The Americans, we saw helping her husband carve up a body and stuff it into a suitcase. How can any talkfest compete with that?
To be sure, the very last minute of The Diplomat goes a long way toward making up for this action deficit. Not to give too much away, but the series, which begins with an explosion, ends with one, too. It comes out of left field. It occurs a lot closer to home than the aircraft-carrier blast. And, dramaturgically, it works. As we fade to black, the viewer’s mind is flooded with questions — none of which will be resolved until and unless Netflix orders a second season.
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