‘The Diplomat’ Gives Keri Russell the Meaty Post-‘Americans’ Role She Deserves
A surprising thing has happened over the last few weeks: The Night Agent became one of the 10 most-watched Netflix series of all time. This isn’t a knock on the spy-thriller, which features the usual solid craftsmanship of The Shield creator Shawn Ryan, a brisk pace, and some likable lead performances. But it’s also a show without big stars (even if supporting player Hong Chau is a recent Oscar nominee) or an attention-getting premise designed to spread word of mouth. It’s just… a well-made example of a very familiar TV genre, and viewers apparently keep streaming it in droves.
Or maybe it shouldn’t be that surprising. As much as snobs like me get all excited about artsy, experimental series like Reservoir Dogs, Severance, and High School, the big streaming hits tend to be more straightforward crowd-pleasers. (See also: USA inexplicably abandoning its popular middlebrow shows like Burn Notice and Monk because the much lower-rated Mr. Robot garnered more buzz.) In particular, the most reliable way to find success in that space, it seems, is to go the Dad TV route: some combination of action, suspense, and mystery, revolving around a hyper-competent, often wisecracking male lead. Nothing fancy, but well built to maneuver in this particular lane. Amazon alone seems to have a never-ending supply of shows like Jack Ryan, Bosch, and Jack Reacher. Night Agent looks to be Netflix’s biggest entry yet into that genre, and don’t be surprised if we get a lot of shows like it over the next few years.
One of those was already in the works, and arrives this week: The Diplomat, a political thriller starring Keri Russell as a career civil servant thrust into the middle of an international crisis when she’s appointed America’s new ambassador to the United Kingdom. It is not exactly Dad TV: the main character is a woman, and the show’s chief concern outside its plot is the uneven playing field between men and women who do the same job. But in its desire to let its star be both great at their fictional job and wryly funny, it feels extremely Dad TV-adjacent, and destined to do very well for Netflix.
Oh, and it’s also extremely entertaining, and ever-so-slightly more thematically ambitious than many of its counterparts.
Russell plays Kate Wyler, who has built an impressive career in the foreign service, but one that’s long been overshadowed by that of her husband Hal (Rufus Sewell). Hal would very much be the central protagonist of the full-on Dad TV version of the show. He is a legendary cowboy type who owns every room he walks into and always knows how to bend the rules to get the result he wants. The version centered on Kate, though, views him with thorough skepticism. Hal is perhaps most famous for commandeering a plane to negotiate a tricky diplomatic agreement in a war zone. The problem with this charming story — as only Kate seems willing to point out — is that the plane he commandeered was supposed to airlift a group of Afghan citizens who were in trouble for having aided American forces during the occupation.
When the series begins, though, Hal’s career is on ice due to a dispute with Secretary of State Ganon (Miguel Sandoval), and it’s Kate in professional ascendance, preparing to reopen the American mission in Kabul. Instead, the bombing of a British aircraft carrier has President Rayburn (Michael McKean, having himself a fine old time) reroute her to the open ambassador post in London. What Kate doesn’t know is that Rayburn and his chief of staff Billie (Nana Mensah) are looking at the job as Kate’s audition to replace the vice president, who is on the verge of resigning over a scandal due to break shortly.
Even being in the dark on the true nature of her assignment, Kate still has to navigate an ongoing feud between Rayburn and Ganon, the mercurial British Prime Minister, Nicol Trowbridge (Rory Kinnear), the wariness of her English counterpart Austin Dennison (David Gyasi), and skepticism from her new deputy Stuart Heyford (Ato Essandoh) that she is up for either her current job or the one he’s been asked to secretly vet her for.
It is a lot to ask of her, and The Diplomat, created by Debora Cahn, asks just as much of Keri Russell. In her first big TV job post-The Americans, she is called upon to give a pure star performance, where the entire thing rests even more on her charisma than it does on her ample dramatic gifts. She’s in the majority of the scenes, and the ones where she doesn’t appear tend to involve other characters talking about Kate. (Though in scenes featuring Kate, they’re often talking about Hal, much to her frustration.) The part requires not only magnetism, which she has in abundance, but good comic timing(*), facility with slapstick, and sheer likability. The Americans is an all-time classic, and a tremendous showcase for her, but it also demanded a very different type of acting than what she does so winningly here. There are sequences when Kate is called upon by CIA station chief Eidra Park (Ali Ahn) to perform some light spycraft, and there is not a trace of Elizabeth Jennings in what Russell is doing in those scenes(**).
(*) Much of her dialogue is laced with expletives, to the point where Dennison sarcastically refers to her “charmingly foul mouth.” While Russell has cursed on screen before, she seems especially liberated by how often she gets to do it here.
(**) This is your periodic reminder that Alias was created because J.J. Abrams was bored one day in the Felicity writers room and asked himself, “What if Felicity was really a secret agent?”
In addition to her work on Grey’s Anatomy and Homeland, Cahn tended to write the most memorable West Wing episodes of the post-Aaron Sorkin era (notably “The Supremes,” where Josh maneuvers to fill an empty Supreme Court seat), and there is a similar mix of high-mindedness and light workplace comedy to what she writes here. Kate refers to a “fundamental respect for institutional norms” in an early scene, but also spends one episode struggling with the practical difficulties of wearing a gray suit instead of a black one on a trip to Washington, and in another has to brief Rayburn while disheveled and covered in fallen leaves after brawling with her exasperating husband in an outdoor garden. Cahn’s banter is pleasing and a bit Sorkin-y without feeling quite as self-consciously mannered: in one scene, Stuart says of a gesture from Rayburn to the Brits, “It’s not nothing. They’ll appreciate its non-nothingness.” Kate replies, “It’s very close to nothing.”
The plot features a lot of reversals about who Kate can and can’t trust, who’s really to blame for the carrier bombing, the precarious status of Kate’s career, and more. Much of this is welcome, if occasionally confusing. But Cahn and her collaborators take one too many turns on the merry-go-round of “Is Hal a great asset, or a millstone around Kate’s neck?” Some ambiguity is valuable, especially when their personal and professional lives have been entangled for so long, and Rufus Sewell really basks in the chance to play Hal as both the charming legend and the overbearing garbage person. But The Diplomat reaches the shit or get off the pot stage even before the end of this quick eight-episode season.
Still, Hal’s presence allows Cahn to dig into the very different ways the spouses are perceived. Hal is lauded for doing whatever he wants, how he wants to, while Kate elicits disbelief or outright scolding when she tries to color outside the lines. He gets to be roguish, while she’s expected to behave. (When she speaks bluntly to Rayburn in one scene, he takes her advice, but also asks, “Do people like you?”) The world automatically bends to Hal’s needs, while any attempts to accommodate hers feel forced and uncomfortable, like a sequence where a group of English diplomats insist, over her mortified protests, on giving her an extra seat cushion in a room where they worry the chairs are too large for such a “slender” woman. There’s similarly smart material as Stuart and Eidra sort out the parameters of their secret romance, as well as which of them would face greater professional consequences from taking it public.
Is it high art? No, and the less you have to think about the mechanics of the plot, the less sense it seems to make. But like its Dad TV cousins, The Diplomat knows what it is (even if it’s a bit more ambitious thematically, and has a stronger overall cast than many of its guy-centric counterparts) and how to deliver the best possible version of that. It may not win Russell the Emmy she was inexplicably denied for playing Elizabeth Jennings, or even get her a nomination, given how much awards bait is debuting in these spring months. But it’s a ride first and foremost, and one I very much enjoyed taking.
All eight episodes of The Diplomat Season One begins streaming April 20 on Netflix. I’ve seen the whole season.