Keri Russell leads this solid political thriller that echoes The West Wing
Plot: Kate Wyler is the new US Ambassador to the United Kingdom. She was supposed to go to Afghanistan. She’s great in a crisis zone. In a historic home… less so. War is brewing on one continent and boiling over on another. Kate will have to diffuse international crises, forge strategic alliances in London, and adjust to her new place in the spotlight — all while trying to survive her marriage to fellow career diplomat and political star Hal Wyler.
Review: Political series come in two distinct flavors. One is heavily action-oriented, with thrills rooted in espionage and chase sequences like The Night Agent. The other is the intricate palace intrigue housed within the halls of political machinations like House of Cards. Now and then, a third version comes into play that is not relying on threat or action but manages to be engaging and aspirational, like in NBC’s acclaimed The West Wing. The new Netflix series The Diplomat strives to be in the same vein as Aaron Sorkin’s long-running series but with a splash of the magic of a Shonda Rhimes series like Grey’s Anatomy. Led by the always-excellent Keri Russell, The Diplomat is a solid entry into that third political series formula that comes close to being marquee viewing but not quite.
The series opens with the bombing of a British aircraft carrier, claiming dozens of sailors’ lives. With the blame game kicking into high gear, President Rayburn (Michael McKean) selects Kate Wyler (Keri Russell) to become the new ambassador to the United Kingdom. Expecting her career politician husband Hal (Rufus Sewell) to get the post, Kate shifts from her expected post in Kabul to London. It is there that Kate meets her new chief of staff, Stuart Heyford (Ato Essandoh), a reputed kingmaker selected to vet his new boss for an even higher post. With the UK ambassadorship seen as a ceremonial position rather than a tactical one, Kate must learn how to navigate politics and the societal requirements of her new job, a role she did not even want. This affords the series the blunt perspective of someone right for the job but only because they are not the person anyone would expect to be put into it.
Over the eight-episode first season of The Diplomat, the story focuses on the political fallout of the aircraft carrier bombing. This plot often would be the focus of a single episode on a network television series. Here, the overarching narrative allows for a more complex analysis of what happens behind closed doors but sometimes strains credulity as much as it stretches the entertainment factor to a breaking point. Luckily, series creator Debora Cahn has experience writing on both The West Wing and Showtime’s Homeland, which imbues The Diplomat with a technical proficiency and depth of knowledge that makes the series feel more realistic than others shows. Set in a contemporary political climate also adds to the realism, making this a nice blend of The Crown‘s pomp with The Night Agent’s thrills.
While the optics, negotiation, and stakes waiver between tense and banal, the star power of Keri Russell works consistently through the entirety of The Diplomat. After her stellar turn on The Americans, potentially the best political series of all time, Russell has appeared in multiple films ranging from Planet of the Apes to Star Wars to Cocaine Bear. Still, none of those have given her a showcase as solid as this one. Playing a ground-level expert thrust into a high-level position allows Russell to blend her character’s operations skills with her burgeoning abilities as a diplomat. In every scene she is in, Russell commands attention. She is also balanced by Rufus Sewell, who portrays Hal Wyler as scheming and manipulative but fully in love with his wife. The two share solid chemistry as a couple amid a broken marriage who love each other deeply but are unsure if they can stay together. It is an intriguing element of the story that echoes the marriage at the center of House of Cards but with significantly fewer evil intentions.
Series creator Debora Cahn enlists fellow The West Wing alum Peter Noah and a solid writing team who understand that while the President and UK Prime Minister (Rory Kinnear) may be in positions of power, it is those that surround them that get the job done. From David Gyasi as the Prime Minister’s chief deputy to POTUS’ own chief (Nana Mensah) and a British power broker played by Celia Imrie, the real intensity comes from those working in offices and conference rooms rather than shaking hands for the cameras. Keri Russell’s Kate Wyler has to bridge both worlds, which is intriguing to watch. Veteran helmer Simon Cellan Jones starts the series with steady cameras that allow the actors to deliver dialogue-heavy scenes, which can become somewhat repetitive. Still, this cast and story help make this worth watching.
The Diplomat is a blend of the soap opera relationships of Shonda Rhimes with the political progress of The West Wing. Still, it sometimes works plot elements far past their expiration dates. By grounding this story in relative reality, there are no astounding cliffhangers like we typically see in more espionage-laden series. Over eight episodes, you may find yourself checking out a bit here and there, but never enough that you won’t snap right back in when the characters face each other across ornate dinner tables. Few actors deliver profanity-laden tirades as effectively as Keri Russell and Rufus Sewell do in this series. It may not be as provocative as House of Cardsaim The Diplomat is still an enjoyable political drama.
The Diplomat premieres on April 20th on Netflix.