Berlin. 1960s. Cold War. Spies.
If you’re like me, and you read that collection of words, you are absolutely primed for just about anything that comes next. Espionage is my genre, and has been since the first time I read Clear and Present Danger as a kid (don’t worry, I’ve long since moved on to John LeCarre and Alan Furst). So when my editor brought my attention to Spy City, a new show premiering on AMC+, and suggested that it might be right up my alley, I mentally made a slight correction: This is my alley. This is it. You are here. Look no further for the soul of Shane Ryan.
Considering those ingredients, a show would really have to fall on its face to not be at least somewhat entertaining to me, but the sad truth is that lately a lot of spy/detective/crime shows are very much falling on their faces. The genre has become so popular that the bar for creating such a show is lower than ever before, and instead of being reserved for the specialists, you have hacks at the helm who don’t care about writing and think that “style” (read: doing a bad Guy Ritchie impression) can make up for any shortcoming. It cannot—not even close—and the result is that I now have to contend with both excitement and dread when the latest spy offering drops.
All of which is a long preamble to the main point: Spy City is really good. Go in with pure excitement, leave the dread behind. The best compliment I can pay the show, before we get into specifics, is that it feels like 10 episodes of TV jammed into six. If that sounds like a weak compliment, it’s not; it means the people who created the show really, really cared about plot, have a lot of ground to cover, and are not going to futz around in telling their story. This is a welcome change from shows that can’t be bothered to have more than four really critical dramatic beats, but take 15 episodes to get there and fill the empty space with ridiculous, intelligence-insulting twists. So that’s the other very good compliment I should give: The writers of Spy City trust that you’re smart, they write to your level, and if you’re not smart and you fall behind or drop off? Too bad. Go watch Gangs of London.
The story, written by William Boyd (a renowned Scottish novelist about whom I know embarrassingly little), is that a British MI6 agent named Fielding Scott is sent to Berlin to find a mole within the ranks who won’t stop leaking critical information. His mission comes not long after he put his own career at risk when he was forced to kill another British agent in self-defense—for reasons that remain mysterious—and the two narratives eventually intertwine. As Scott, Dominic Cooper is so good that you’ll find yourself wishing he would play the character for the rest of his life. By turns brooding, calculating, arrogant, funny, reckless, charming, and ruthless, he’s about as perfect for the role as anyone could hope for. (I will tiptoe up to the line of spoilers, but not over, when I tell you that there’s a death in the final episode which features a bit of acting from Cooper that is so raw and satisfying, I’ve already watched it a dozen times.)
It will sound reductive, but when you combine the quality of Boyd’s writing and the quality of Cooper’s performance, the rest of the cast could have been played by Gilbert Gottfried wearing various wigs, set on the surface of the moon, and it would still have been a pretty good show.
But it’s more than just good, because the attention to detail in all aspects is phenomenal. Romane Portail as French “diplomat” and Scott’s lover Severine Bloch (great name) stands out for the sheer intensity of her performance, and Johanna Wokalek is one of the show’s few grounding ingredients as photographer Ulrike Faber. The show doesn’t deal much with Americans, but as one of the few exceptions, Seumas F. Sargent brings the perfect energy to Scott’s friend Conrad, a man who operates with all the surface confidence you’d expect of an American in that era, but who is torn and overwhelmed internally.
As for atmosphere, the show does its best to adhere to a ‘60s Berlin aesthetic, and even splices in some old footage of the period. But, strange as it sounds, its artistic heart belongs in the ‘70s. There’s a shared stylistic thread, albeit several generations removed, with the old Alec Guinness BBC Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy series, and for similar reasons I kept thinking of the Costas-Gavras thriller Z. In terms of ambience, this is the only show that can stand a comparison to the recent LeCarre adaptations Little Drummer Girl and A Most Wanted Man. That’s not to suggest it’s quite as excellent, but it is the only one that finds itself in the same neighborhood.
If there’s a complaint here, it’s that some elements can be lost in the sheer speed. In one mystifying scene in the first episode (that, for all I know, may be fixed by the time it hits AMC+), a meeting with six people turns into a meeting of three, and there’s absolutely no explanation for what happened to the others. Similarly, the plot moves with such urgency that a few side stories seem to skip from point A to C, with barely a nod at what happened at point B to speed us to the dramatic conclusion. Still, a few mystifying moments of that kind are preferable to the alternatives that come with inferior planning, and may be the result of condensing a show that was originally planned for ten episodes into six.
The provenance of Spy City is a bit difficult to get your head around. It was first released in Germany last December as part of a streaming service called Magenta TV, and it seems to have been a collaboration among the Germans, the British, and the Czechs (it was filmed entirely in the Czech Republic), with AMC holding American rights. My great fear is that with its streaming-first release, to be followed (you’d assume) by AMC proper, it’s not going to get the attention it deserves and may never sniff a second season. That would be sad, because Fielding Scott is a terrific character, the writing is crisp and intelligent, and it’s a very welcome addition to a genre that has been beset, recently, with a series of duds. It is not easy to do period espionage on TV, and it would be a shame to lose such an excellent example for the simple fact that, like a masterful spy, nobody even knows it exists.
Spy City premieres Thursday, April 15th on AMC+
Shane Ryan is a writer and editor. You can find more of his writing and podcasting at Apocalypse Sports, and follow him on Twitter here .
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