It seems I’m destined to miss the output of Canadian TV auteur Chris Haddock until it has already come and gone. The Romeo Section, the latest show from the mind behind the brilliant crime/espionage drama Intelligence, has already been launched, run for two seasons, and sadly been cancelled. The consolation prize is that its first season is now streaming on Hulu, and fans of spy TV will absolutely not want to miss it.
Outwardly, Professor Wolfgang McGee (Andrew Airlie) is a dashing, middle-aged intellectual, charismatically lecturing students and scribbling away on a book. But secretly, Wolfgang is an operative for the Canadian Secret Intelligence Service, working informants across Vancouver for intel against both local crime organizations and international targets. As the show begins, Wolfgang — or “Rupert,” as he’s known to his joes — is a steely-nerved schemer running several long-running games at once. In one theater, his agent Rufus Decker (Juan Redinger) is an up-and-coming henchman in a local drug-trafficking gang. Rufus has worked himself into a position of influence in his crew, thanks largely to a precarious affair he’s conducted with his boss’s volatile wife Dee (Stephanie Bennett). Elsewhere, Wolfgang has his eye on a local church, where a lonely Mexican expatriate, Miguel (Mattias Retamal), has sought sanctuary. To gather information on Miguel, Wolfgang recruits Eva (Sophia Lauchlin Hirt), a reforming petty criminal who’s been carrying out community service at the church, to befriend him. Finally, on campus, Wolfang becomes acquainted with a fellow faculty member, Lily Song (Jemmy Chen) — but is it an innocent flirtation, or yet another scheme?
Wolfgang’s many operations acquire a new urgency when his cagey local CSIS contact Al (Intelligence’s Eugene Lipinski) informs him that he’s under suspicion of being the source of an intelligence breach that has landed two Canadian agents in Chinese prison. This new oversight, combined with the arrival of more and more conflicting players in his theater of operations, threatens to foul up years of work and, ultimately, his endgame: uncovering the identity of an international drug smuggler named General Wu (Vincent Cheng).
The Romeo Section shares so many similarities with Intelligence that it could practically be a sequel — and that’s looking beyond the return of Lipinski (virtually reprising his Intelligence role) and Ian Tracey (who turns up as an opportunistic vice cop). It’s got the same tortuously complex plotting, the same subtle visual storytelling, the same large cast of angling, untrustworthy players, and — perhaps best of all — the same trust in its audience’s intelligence to follow everything. This is not a show that holds your hand. It introduces subtle new angles and elements on a regular basis, and weaves them together masterfully into a complex narrative. It’s got slick street-level tradecraft, thorny intelligence service politics, sustained interpersonal tension, even a pivotal heist sequence — all the earmarks of classic spy TV.
Airlie holds center stage with an compelling mix of gruff charisma, intellect, and ruthless snarl, and he makes for one of the more convincing spy-world bastards to grace the small screen; one could see him holding his own against Neil Burnside of The Sandbaggers or Harry Pearce of MI-5. Unfortunately, the acting is a little more uneven further down the depth chart, but not so much as to drive the train off the rails. Best in support, perhaps, are Hirt and Retamal, whose thread contains some of the show’s most genuine emotional content, and the season’s most touching moment.
The Romeo Section draws its less-than-stellar title from the fact that Wolfgang specializes in leveraging his agents into seducing their marks — something, one quickly infers, that he may know a little about from personal experience. It’s a thin pretext, I think, to “sex up” a series that thrives more on thoughtful, intricate plotting than on prurient titillation. This is one of the show’s few weak spots, and really it’s only a failure of branding. Other than that, the only thing holding this season back from being completely satisfying is that the payoff doesn’t quite match the build-up. It ends much like it begins: in medias res, with new schemes in motion, questions unanswered, meanings ambiguous. Of course, in this genre that may be more of a feature than a bug. In my view, it may fall short of modern spy TV masterpieces like Berlin Station or The Honourable Woman — but not by a hell of a lot. Definitely looking forward to the second season.