TV: The Diplomat (Season 1)

It’s good to see Keri Russell parlaying her success on The Americans into impressive new roles, and Netflix’s The Diplomat gives her a juicy one: Kate Wyler, a steely, resourceful political operative with a reputation for getting her hands dirty in difficult theaters. Expecting to hie off to Afghanistan on a thorny new assignment, Kate is surprised when she’s tapped instead to become the next ambassador to the United Kingdom, traditionally a more ornamental role. Kate is irritated by the posting, a job better suited to her sly, angling husband Hal (Rufus Sewell), whose experience and influence she believes may have led to her posting—perhaps as a tacit part of the package. Indeed, hidden agendas abound when she lands in London, but soon the intrigue surrounding her career isn’t her only problem. A crisis flares in the Middle East, putting Kate to the test as she matches wits with U.S. colleagues, U.K. counterparts, and her own unpredictable, trouble-making husband.

While The Diplomat has a certain prestige-TV veneer, it actually possesses the feel of network TV conventionality, if perhaps seasoned with plenty of raw language and PG-13 sexual situations. Tonally, and indeed conceptually, it’s reminiscent of The Good Wife, with Russell and Sewell assaying a dynamic not unlike that of Alicia and Peter Florick. Kate’s battles have a similar feminist subtext, and the political banter is similarly charged and twisty. The heightened affairs of state the Wylers get involved in are considerably higher stakes, of course, and creator/showrunner Debora Cahn peppers the soap-opera backdrop with bigger, scarier crises. This puts Kate in the room with a no-nonsense, Bidenesque United States president (Michael McKean) and a reckless firebrand of a Prime Minister (Rory Kinnear), as well as an attractive UK Foreign Secretary (David Gyasi) with whom she develops a loaded, flirtatious working relationship. The diplomacy is energized by more than a little intelligence-world intrigue, too, as Kate and Hal become targets of pull-asides and interagency gambits, sometimes in collaboration with Kate’s deputy Stuart (Ato Essandoh) and the local CIA Chief of Station, Eidra (Ali Ahn)—who, incidentally, are romantically entwined.

Is there something a little preposterous about the soap opera entanglements? Probably, but the execution is adroit, and the scripts deliver plenty of clever exchanges into the actors’ mouths, making the whole thing breathlessly watchable. At eight episodes, the season blazes past far too quickly, and that, perhaps, is my one complaint; The Diplomat has long-season rhythms that get cut off by a cliffhanger finale, making it feel rushed and incomplete. But the performances are stellar, and the journey is quite bracing.

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