TV: X Company (Season 1)

It will probably surprise no one how much I enjoyed the first season of Canadian historical spy drama X Company. After all, it’s basically “Mission: Impossible meets World War II.” Could there be a more tantalizing elevator pitch? It follows the exploits of a highly trained team of Allied operatives who carry out dangerous assignments against the Nazis at the height of the war. In each episode, the team ventures behind enemy lines on operations crucial to the Allied war effort, but their objectives often end up more complicated than expected, forcing them to adjust their clockwork planning, improvise past obstacles, and make split-second, life-and-death decisions.

There’s something deceptively modest about X Company, which presents, especially at first, like old-fashioned episodic TV from the sixties or seventies. The initial sense is that every week, the team will prevail and the reset button will be pressed. The inevitable Mission: Impossible comparison contributes to this first impression; the team does look an awful lot like an homage to the Impossible Missions Force, although mercifully they do tinker with the formula. X Company can’t quite resist the “token female agent” trope, alas, but at least she’s in charge: former French resistance agent Aurora Luft (Orphan Black’s Evelyne Brochu) fills the leadership role. Her teammates include ruthless Nazi-hating combat veteran Neil Mackay (Warren Brown), fast-talking, idealistic ad man Tom Cummings (Dustin Milligan), and baby-faced tech genius Harry James (Connor Price). Willy type, Rollin type, Barney type, check. The only real wild card on the team is the quirky new guy, Alfred Graves (Jack Laskey). At first, Alfred seems like another problematic trope character: neuroatypical genius. Alfred is “blessed and cursed” both by synesthesia and a photographic memory, which makes him uniquely valuable—and uniquely vulnerable. Even with this slightly more unlikely character build, Alfred still “fits the suit,” functioning as something of an ancillary mastermind.

Considering all this influence baggage, I went into X Company with reservations, chief among them the fear that the show would be predictably derivative spy drama with thin, shopworn heroes. Fortunately, the quick, eight-episode season dismantled my preconceived worries. Structurally, X Company is more unpredictable than Mission, often starting in medias res before backfilling the necessary context to set up the scenario, before left-turning into legitimate complications and secondary objectives which render the tactics and outcomes more surprising. Additionally, there’s no reset button; plot elements and character arcs build across the episodes, as hardened agents lose their nerve, rookies gain confidence, and relationships evolve, complicating the group dynamic. Indeed, as the characters gain depth and their camaraderie evolves, the stakes gradually increase, as their dangerous work continuously threatens to take them from each other. Add to this some well deployed historical touches and nicely clocked subplots, and X Comany ends up being more robust and compelling than expected. I definitely wouldn’t categorize it as top tier “prestige TV,” but it hit a real sweet spot for me, pushing all sorts of old-school buttons.

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