Netflix is hitting it out of the park this year, releasing two of my favorite series with BEEF and now THE DIPLOMAT. A political drama, with comedy and thriller elements weaved, THE DIPLOMAT is one of the best foreign policy-focused series since HOMELAND and THE AMERICANS. Created by Deborah Cahn, who also wrote and produced THE WEST WING and HOMELAND, the series has all of the makings of being one of those that is going to stay in the conversation for a long time and leave fans begging for more. It’s lucky that you get to binge watch the episodes as fast (or as slowly) as you want; my guess is you’re going to get through these quickly.
The series centers around Kate Wyler (Keri Russell), a career diplomat who was on track to be the next ambassador for Afghanistan, but is surprised to find out she has been reassigned to be the next ambassador to the United Kingdom. The U.S. President is desperate to install an ambassador who is familiar with crises following an attack on a British warship in the Persian Gulf. Because the US ambassador to the UK is traditionally an appointed post that goes to a campaign donor, the hope is that Kate will be able to better reinforce the U.S. partnership with the Brits and work on getting to the bottom of who did this. But of course, there are other wheels turning behind the scenes, and there may be more to Kate’s appointment than meets the eye.
Kate is an Iran expert and doesn’t believe for a second that the Iranians are behind the attack on the British vessel, but it is going to take some work on her end to convince her U.S. and British colleagues that there may be another culprit. And on top of the international crises she has to deal with, Kate also is struggling with personal issues, most of which are caused by her husband Hal (Rufus Sewell). As a former career diplomat/ambassador himself, Hal refuses to back off and let Kate try to handle things herself. He can’t help but to meddle and Kate has had it. It’s hard enough to prove yourself as a woman in her field, but to have her husband constantly undermining her is the last straw.
THE DIPLOMAT is a smart series that expertly brings in current events to make the plot both timely and recognizable. It’s crazy how quickly Cahn and her team were able to weave in real foreign policy crises—such as Russia’s war in Ukraine, tensions with Iran, and the effects of the Afghanistan withdrawal—without making it seemed forced. Of course there are some moments that fall more on the Hollywood spectrum of action, begging the audience to suspend disbelief to go along with the action. And you know what? I did. The series does such a good job of getting so many of the small things right, such as the huge difference between being a career diplomat and appointed diplomat, I was able to enjoy some of the moments created more for entertainment than realism.
And more than being an interesting series that plays with some of the real foreign policy issues affecting the world today, the series is a lot of fun. Cahn does an incredible job getting the tone of the series just right. It isn’t as serious as HOMELAND or THE AMERICANS and isn’t as comedic as a series like VEEP; it is more a warts and all exploration of what it means to be a diplomat, the personal and professional tension that comes along with that, the political machinations of dealing with your own government and host nation, and the sacrifices you have to make to be perceived as good at your job. Not only that, THE DIPLOMAT adds the element of what it means to be a woman in what has traditionally been a man’s world.
Can Keri Russell do any wrong? If anyone thought she wouldn’t get another meaty role like Elizabeth Jennings in THE AMERICANS, you would be wrong because her role in THE DIPLOMAT is so much fun. I love that Russell consistently chooses complicated, multifaceted characters that are both unpredictable and more than what the may appear at first glance. And her chemistry with Rufus Sewell is captivating. It’s hard to tell whether you want them to be together or want Sewell’s Hal on the next plane back to the United States; my opinion changed from scene to scene. We know Sewell is great at playing smarmy, but I was surprised by how (similar to his character) he was able to also turn on the charm. Though let it be known, I still have not forgiven him for disrespecting Kate Winslet in THE HOLIDAY.
But more than just focusing on the central performances from Russell and Sewell, at its heart, THE DIPLOMAT is an ensemble series, with strong performances from the entire cast. There are so many recurring characters, each important to the plot, that you need to be paying close attention to make sure you’re not missing anything. Some of the standouts for me are David Gyasi as the British foreign secretary, Ato Essandoh as the deputy chief of mission, and Ali Ahn as the CIA station chief. Each has their own storyline that also fit into the larger narrative, a feat more difficult than you make think. I hate when I am watching a show and it takes a detour to focus on a character I don’t care about, wasting time in that episode. I never had that thought when the series switched to a scene focused on any of these characters; it was always for a reason and moved the plot along.
Ideally, THE DIPLOMAT is best to take your time with and savor, not only because it is one of the best series of the year but also because it has some big concepts and intricate plot lines that are important to ruminate on and dissect. This isn’t the type of series you can be on your phone and watching at the same time because you will miss major plot points. But let’s be real, each episode is so enthralling I know you aren’t going to be able to wait too long for the next one; the Lauren-shaped indent in my couch made from watching episode after episode in a row proves that. And if I’m being honest, it’s better for Netflix to see a lot of interest early on so we can get a second season… because believe me, without getting into spoilers, you are going to want a second season.
My Review: B+/A-
1 thought on “TV Review: The Diplomat”
I can’t even begin to describe how absurd this series is and, to do so, I am afraid I will have to include spoilers.
For starters, there is an overt partisan political bias in the series. Brexit is described as the greatest “self-inflicted wound” in history; “Global Britain” is ridiculed; Scotland and Norhern Ireland are presented as being in the imminence of breaking up from the United Kingdom; and Tory politicians are generally implied to be sleazy. The series also reinforces the themes of British “decline” and similar anti-British stereotypes that have become prevalent in the United States recently.
Second, the plot is often nonsensical. Why would a by-election defeat in Scotland force the UK Prime Minister to agree to a second Scottish independence referendum? Also, the American characters keep calling the Prime Minister the “Head of State” when he is just the head of government in the UK and the Head of State is obviously HM The King. The creator of the series apparently knows little about British politics and the UK constitution while believing to be an expert on the topic. And I would not even get into the absurdity of a British Prime Minister hiring Russian mercenaries to torpedo the Royal Navy’s flagship (and indeed one of only 2 aircraft carriers in service in the Royal Navy today), and expect that he could not only get away with it, but also that engineering a conflict with Iran would help him in a hypothetical Scottish independence referendum. Unless there is some plot twist in Season 2, the concept is so preposterous and nonsensical that it doesn’t even merit discussion. Not to mention also that, from a military point of view, aircraft carriers are escorted by battle group ships and submarines, which should be able to detect and intercept a speedboat before it could strike the carrier.
The worst part, however, is just the behavior of the lead characters. The US ambassador to the Court of St. James talks with His Majesty’s Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs repeatedly using the F-word and other forms of profanity. She also seems to drop in on the Foreign Secretary whenever she wants. The CIA’s Station Chief in London implies that she wants to recruit the UK Foreign Secretary as an asset and the Foreign Secretary schedules a secret meeting with the Iranian ambassador arranged by the CIA and without going over this matter with the Prime Minister, the Civil Service, and/or the Cabinet. The President of the United States, clearly modeled after Joe Biden, is depicted as senile and in need of babysitting by the White House Chief of Staff. And it is implied that the Prime Minister can authorize extra-judicial killings in another sovereign country, even though that is illegal in the UK.
Above all, in addition to their absurdity, most characters are over-the-top or just plainly annoying: the Ambassador, the Ambassador’s husband, the CIA’s Station Chief, the Deputy Chief of Mission, I can’t really decide which one is more insufferable. The Ambasador in particular is completely reckless bordering on total irresponsibility, has horrible “people’s skills”, and, yet, is presented as someone who is being considered as the possible next Vice-President of the United States and, by implication with a senile President, possibly a next President herself.
Overall, this series seems to reflect what has unfortunately become the mainstream perspective of the American Left today, but is presented as factual by Netflix.