Netflix’s The Diplomat Is Relentlessly Fun, Half-Serious, and Driven by Its Stars

TV Reviews The Diplomat
Netflix’s The Diplomat Is Relentlessly Fun, Half-Serious, and Driven by Its Stars

Veep has spoiled American viewers when it comes to shows about the inner workings of the high-level political bureaucracy. You know the old cliche: people in the know say the show’s merciless cynicism is infinitely more accurate than the dewy-eyed idealism of The West Wing, which looks today, more than ever, like a woefully misguided liberal fantasy. What Armando Iannucci and his team proved with Veep, and before that with its British counterpart The Thick of It, is that you can’t go wrong if you depict the diplomatic machine as as extensions of its operators: self-interested, craven, thoughtlessly cruel, and ultimately ineffective. As Jesse Armstrong (a proud member of the Iannucci coaching tree) proved, you can take that approach, apply it to the world of business, shift the dysfunction from state to family, strip 50% of the jokes so it narrowly qualifies as a “drama,” and make a cultural phenomenon like Succession.

After this slash-and-burn approach, the question that remains is: How do you make a serious political show, or at least one that takes the diplomatic game seriously? Netflix’s answer is The Diplomat, starring Keri Russell as ambassador Kate Wyler, and Rufus Sewell as Hal Wyler, a disgraced ambassador who also happens to be her husband. Kate is on the verge of a career posting to Kabul, charged with picking up the pieces from the Afghanistan mess, when fate intervenes with a terrorist attack on a British warship that results in over 40 dead. The general belief is that it’s an Iranian attack designed to send a message to the United States, and as rhetoric escalates on the U.S. and U.K. side, she’s sent to London as a peacemaker. Hal comes along, and things quickly get complicated as it emerges that Iran is likely not behind the attack, but that diplomatic momentum may be propelling the two sides into a war anyway.

If misinterpreted intelligence leading to a war in the Middle East sounds familiar, The Diplomat is also aware, and references Iraq with some frequency. But deep down, this show isn’t about Iraq, Iran, or really even global politics at all. It’s about the strange interplay between husband and wife, which has become complex enough that divorce seems imminent. Russell’s Kate Wyler is perpetually frazzled, seems to hate the public-facing parts of her job, but maintains a sincerity even as she juggles the superficialities of life in the semi-spotlight. Sewell, on the other hand, has that perfect amount of irresistible sleaze/charm required of a political figure, but also has the unfortunate trait of being unable to resist massive risks that can become huge coups or huge disasters, and which ran him out of favor with everyone that mattered in D.C. Even now, as he feigns enjoyment in his role as Kate’s spouse, he has a hand in almost everything, and inevitably influences (and puts at risk) everything his wife touches.

The Diplomat on Netflix

Watching the two is a pleasure, particularly Kate’s inability to extricate herself from her husband’s dark maneuvering, even as she realizes—and tells anyone who will listen—that he’s a shark. Worst of all, even when she resolves to end it, the ultimate carrot is dangled before here, which is the vice presidency. You can’t be divorced and become Vice President, the wisdom goes… or at least not newly divorced. She can’t be rid of him, he doesn’t want to be rid of her, and what especially rankles is that his risks on her behalf sometimes pay off.

This dynamic saves the show, which is otherwise stuck between sincerity and cynicism, comedy and drama. Its understanding of geopolitics is dicey at best; they get the names and places right, but with something like the warship attack, it would be much clearer to many more people sooner that it was not in Iran’s best interests to carry out such a mission, and it wouldn’t fall to an ambassador to make the case clear. And while the show can briefly descend to Veep-adjacent levels of satire and self-interest, at other times it takes itself far too seriously, and imparts more piety than many of its characters deserve. Beyond the leads, there is a self-consciousness which can be grating—there’s a minor character who wears a bowtie that, for whatever reason, sticks in my mind as a particularly annoying sartorial touch—and which is not paired with a strong narrative.

This is, in short, a slight entertainment, which will not expand the canon of great political dramas or comedies and won’t be remembered in five years’ time, but which is sufficient entertainment nonetheless. Russell and Sewell are worth the price of admission, and if you treat The Diplomat as the story of a really screwed up marriage, rather than a tale of international intrigue, you’ll come away pleased.

The Diplomat premieres Thursday, April 20th on Netflix.

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 .

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.

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