I’m still a little baffled by Netflix’s marketing efforts. A series like The Diplomat — which should be its answer to what was Showtime’s premier series for a decade, Homeland — got absolutely no promotion. I don’t think I even saw it in trailers or any kind of splash on the homescreen. The two shows aren’t exactly the same, of course, but the DNA both in their mixture of international intrigue, political machinations and a dash of thriller, and the fact this series’ showrunner was an Exec Producer and writer on Homeland, gives it some of the same feels. My point — however muddled — is that it’s amazing that something this taut, well-acted and meticulously constructed just kind of sneaks into our lives with little-to-no fanfare. Put some respect on Felicity’s name, people!
I think the series’ title kind of says it all. Keri Russell plays the titular diplomat, Kate Wyler. She is the newly appointed US ambassador to the UK. A position she takes reluctantly after spending her time dealing with high-wire negotiations and situations in the Middle East. What she doesn’t know is that this post is just an audition for an even higher position in the government. And she is ill-suited for the pomp and circumstance that is the usual position of this posh assignment. She’s a rough-around-the-edges workaholic who is used to dealing with warlords and terrorists and not so much folks with titles and bespoke suits. So the show creates a fish-out-of-water situation, but one that doesn’t take the typical clueless innocent approach, but rather makes Kate a savvy, direct operator who kind of just blows through the niceties that others around her are used to. While also having her balance her mess of a personal life and propensity to self-sabotage.
Once we get the setup in place, Kate is immediately thrown into a critical situation. It’s an easy win for a first season of TV. We really get to know our main character, introduce her husband, Hal (Rufus Sewell), and off we go. Hal is an ex-diplomat who is well known amongst just about everyone in the international community. And his presence is almost as much of a push-pull as the actual international incident that Kate immediately needs to deal with. The couple is seemingly done marriage-wise, but Kate is struggling to divorce herself from his incredibly charismatic brain. And, of course, his counsel in helping her unravel her new situation. The combo of Russell’s incredibly manic energy and Sewell’s sharp charisma is really fun to watch. Two very smart people circling each other; her in a whirlwind, him in a calm, pretend-standoffish coolness. It’s hard to describe, but Sewell’s character is one of the best I’ve seen in a while. Both of them are terrific in the show.
I know I say this too much, but it’s nice to have another “adult” show to watch. The Diplomat is decidedly made for a “mature” audience. I don’t mean like old people per se, but it’s definitely targeting a Gen X audience, what with a Gen X showrunner and a Gen X lead actress, who feels like an adult woman with coming middle age issues and an established career. It’s none of that nonsense I bump on in other shows where these 48-year-old men (often dating younger women) are still weighing if they should have a kid and/or struggling to find themselves or their career path. Which always feels like pandering to some idea that they can expand their audience if they pretend to struggle with a younger person’s issues. You know, to make things relatable to as broad a spectrum as they can. So, no, I don’t imagine younger people being into this show. I’m not certain older folks would be interested either. Though my outdated view is that old people only like Murder She Wrote and Matlock. I suppose I could look at Hipster Parents, who are in their 70s, and consider if they would enjoy this show. And I’m not sure. I think so? But the Hipster Kids? Absolutely not. And like Hipster Second Cousins, who are in their 20s and early 30s? Don’t think so.
Anyhow, the first season sets up Kate trying to get into her new role, handle her relationship with Hal and basically work through a huge international incident. Which is an easy outline to manage, though the writers don’t exactly hand-hold when it comes to the diplomatic details of how Kate works it. There are politics and negotiations and all sorts of maneuvering, which the show trusts its audience to work through. The dialogue is snappy and there are some really funny scenes. It does the thing that Homeland often missed: it doesn’t take itself too seriously every minute of every episode. It understands some of the process is absurd. It knows that these people are just people and have all the same foibles and detriments that everyone has. They’re not superheroes. And sometimes life is funny. Sometimes it’s dramatic. And sometimes decisions can lead to catastrophe. But not always. It’s certainly not as fraught as your typical spy thriller, but certainly feels way more realistic in terms of the ups and downs of managing an international group of decision makers and their egos. Ultimately, the show is well-written, well-acted and propulsive without being overly hyperbolic. An adult show for adults. One side note: the actor who plays the British Prime Minister, Rory Kinnear, is the same actor who played the Prime Minister in the Black Mirror episode, “The National Anthem,” where he was force to have sex with a pig. They must have known this when they cast him, and it’s really hard to unsee when he’s on screen. Or maybe that’s just me.