This is one of the year’s best films.
“Agent X” is proof that while television may be in its golden age, mainstream movies still have higher standards. Sure, each can have their junk food, but multiplex films still wouldn’t have the money or theater space to risk on a character and narrative course as bafflingly bland as this new series on TNT (premiering Sunday, November 8 at 9/8c) which is nonetheless a rip-off of movies. "Agent X" lowers the general bar from entertainment value to nap-ability—“Will I miss anything important when I inevitably fall asleep through most of it?”
It is probably best to start by explaining the goofy employer of Agent X, as plot synopses on his very missions will prove very boring to read. Inside the vice president’s estate is the real Constitution, which contains “the greatest secret in the history of our country,” an article that is not in the version we know dearly. This Constitution says something about an “Agent of Unknown Identity,” who is assigned by the vice president to restore order, while working outside the law and without even the president's knowledge. In this show’s small mind, this explains why the second in command of the free world always appears less busy than the commander in chief. It's a tasteless and cutesy reasoning that nonetheless inspires no wonder about past agents, nevertheless what kind of missions Spiro Agnew must have activated. In its mythology, “Agent X” credits Nathan Hale as the first secret spy, who did indeed die of espionage, but now has something more painful to his legacy than a trip to the gallows.
“Agent X” begins with the election of a new vice president, Sharon Stone’s Natalie Maccabee, a character who even the press notes make it sound like she won the position because her husband died in a brutal car accident. Surprised with flat awe of every little secret revealed to her in her basement, she is quickly brought up to speed by the Chief Steward of the Vice President’s Residence, Malcolm Millar (Gerald McRaney), who essentially runs the operations with his prowess of technology and knowledge of the program. And of course, Vice President Maccabee meets the current Agent X, a slice of all-American white bread named John Case (Jeff Hephner) who is a one-patriot army, but is not trained in personality. In the stale world of “Agent X,” he’s a perfect foe for the likes of a Russian femme fatale creatively named Olga Petrovka (Olga Fonda), or a Mexican drug dealer that will be later known in episode four as “El Diablo.”
Yes, once “Agent X” kicks into mission mode (in which Vice President Natalie Maccabee is far from the power of James Bond’s M), the series scrambles to cover every cliche its limited imagination can think of, especially in terms of dialogue, action, character, location and plot, with only conspiracy twists to motivate a type of arc. In the three episodes I saw, the FBI director’s daughter is kidnapped by some Russians, some stolen nukes appear on an Eastern-European black market, and there’s an in-house assassination threat. In the show’s eye-rolling taste for paranoia, the Red Scare never subsided, and in its lazy nod to how some might feel today, some current people in governmental power are bonafide villains. “We’re talking patriotism, not politics,” one character says, covering Agent X’s wide agenda with Dinesh D’Souza-level mumbo jumbo jingoism.
If my calculations are correct, “Agent X” is essentially a mix of “National Treasure’s” historical fudging/modern conspiracy with a Treadstone/Jason Bourne-like secret government agency, dressed in a tux as a fifth-tier James Bond, all with double-O percentage of grit. The series (created by “The Bourne Identity” co-writer William Blake Herron) is armed with influences but extremely synonymous in execution, which is slightly a shame as supporting actors Olga Fonda and Gerald McRaney seem like they’re really trying to sell this junk. And credit where credit is due, the action scenes are often cut together here with some skill. But in the end, I’m unsure as to whether this non-winking series is working at full-capacity as it digs into the dumpsters of so many franchises before it, or just trying to become a glossy way for people to kill time, especially when “Spectre” requires a drive to the movie theater, or Robert Ludlum novels are hundreds and hundreds of pages long. This is certainly a different type of luxury that TV provides, but creativity—and escapism—is not better for it. As the saying goes: vive le cinema, and death to “Agent X.”
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