Roger Ebert Home

Netflix’s Promising The Diplomat is Anchored by Great Performances

Netflix’s newest drama “The Diplomat” could be a victim of expectations. I’ll admit that seeing it on the docket had me thinking the streaming giant was about to have an immediate hit in the “Dad TV” department that echoed the massive success of “The Night Agent.” More political intrigue, back-stabbing, action, and crazy twists? Alert dads everywhere! This is not that show. It’s more “The West Wing” than “24,” a program that spends most of its time in conference rooms and political venues. It feels very much like an old-fashioned network drama inspired by that Aaron Sorkin hit to again unpack the intersections of the political and the personal. To that end, it’s an extremely talky show, built on a foundation of discussions and disagreements about foreign policy more than anything else, and a show this dense with dialogue can be a tough sell to people looking for something to casually watch while doing something else on their phone. Luckily, the creators hired an ensemble of performers to make this kind of intellectual discourse genuine. So even as “The Diplomat” circles the same drains of dissent and diplomacy, it remains interesting for anyone intrigued by what makes the political world tick.

More than anything else, if “The Diplomat” finds an audience, it will be because of the undeniable joy of watching the insanely talented Keri Russell and Rufus Sewell argue, flirt, and challenge each other with spectacular chemistry and believable backstories. The stars of “The Americans” and “Dark City” respectively play a powerful couple thrust into world-shaping events after a missile attack on a British carrier in the Persian Gulf. Was it Iran? Russia? Someone else? Russell plays Kate Wyler, the new U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom, and so she’s sent there to make sure the plans of the hawkish U.K. Prime Minister (Rory Kinnear) align with the interests of the United States. She is also on a shortlist for a potential opening in the Vice President’s office, which makes her troublesome husband Hal (Sewell) as much of a liability as an asset. Hal is a political shark, a power player who makes moves off the grid that could get a potential Veep in trouble. Oh, it doesn’t help that the two were planning to separate, which is more difficult in the public eye of international politics.

Most of “The Diplomat” takes place on U.K. soil as Wyler navigates the choppy waters of political responsibility and personal drama. Creator Debora Cahn, a veteran writer of “The West Wing” herself and a writer on “Homeland,” understands this kind of drama about relationships between not just people but countries. And there are times when the writing on “The Diplomat” lives up to the talent of its stars—not just Russell/Sewell but great supporting turns from Ato Essandoh, David Gyasi, Miguel Sandoval, and more—but the rhythm is sometimes off. The show has a habit of sacrificing pacing for personal drama, diving in and out of relationship issues, and throwing off the tonal balance. One minute, the Wylers are stopping a potential third World War. The next, they’re bickering and flirting like a 20th-century rom-com.

Of course, some whiplash is intentional. “The Diplomat” is a show about how the people keeping us from nuclear annihilation also forget to button their shirts the right way or suffer heat rash from the stress. It’s about how ego, grudges, and resentment have impacted history in ways we may never fully understand. And it’s sharp, even as the flow can be inconsistent. It's fun to watch a show with characters who are so clearly smart even as they make dumb decisions.

What’s most promising is that the issues of "The Diplomat" can be easily fixed. A little tonal fine-tuning and ironing out of the timing of a season’s narrative can be altered between seasons, and it feels like a show that could run for years if it finds the right audience (Cahn certainly comes from a background of shows that knew how to do multi-season narratives). I may not have been fully prepared for what “The Diplomat” is in season one, but I’m optimistic about what comes next.

Full season screened for review. “The Diplomat” premieres on Netflix on April 20th.

 

Brian Tallerico

Brian Tallerico is the Managing Editor of RogerEbert.com, and also covers television, film, Blu-ray, and video games. He is also a writer for Vulture, The Playlist, The New York Times, and GQ, and the President of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

Latest blog posts

Latest reviews

Sweet Dreams
Challengers
Disappear Completely
LaRoy, Texas
The Long Game
Sasquatch Sunset

Comments

comments powered by Disqus