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 US Ambassador to the United Kingdom, and so she’s sent there to make sure the plans of the hawkish UK 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 UK 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.