The AMC+ drama brings class & style, but nothing else new or interesting in the genre.
Look, we all love Dominic Cooper and slim-cut suits, and Dominic Cooper IN slim-cut suits, but are we all just a little tired of spies?
Spy City, an AMC+ original, is here for everyone who misses Mad Men and who hankers for the days of giant cameras and clandestine meetings with contacts in public park gazebos. Written by William Boyd and directed by Miguel Alexandre, the six-episode series is a glossy spy thriller paint-by-numbers, everything we’ve seen before, in really nice trappings.
Cooper plays Fielding Scott, a British agent attacked by his contact during an info drop in Berlin a year before the show’s main events. When Scott killed the attacker in self-defense, he discovered that the would-be assassin was also a British agent, and one with friends among Scott’s higher-ups. No one can give Scott an answer as to why the man would attack him, and he is packed off to England posthaste.
The following year, Scott is sent back to Berlin for a special mission: East German scientist Manfred Ziegler AKA Beethoven (Wanja Mues) who has developed a crucial piece of missile-related technology, wishes to defect to the United Kingdom and will only do so if Scott (whom he knew before the War) is his handler. Back in Berlin, Scott reunites with American CIA buddy Conrad Greer (Seumas F. Sargent) and French agent (and former/current lover) Severine Bloch (Romane Portail) and their various Allied governments formulate a plan to smuggle the scientist, his family, and his invention out of Germany.
When Operation Beethoven goes awry, it’s clear to Scott and his higher-ups that there is a traitor among them, so Scott is tasked to find the mole and kill them. Naturally, there are more than a few obstacles in Scott’s way, including Severine’s various plans, the question of why he was almost killed the year before, and why unknown parties are spying on him now. Complicating matters is Eliza (Leonie Benesch), Scott’s German secretary, who is spying on him for the East German government to protect her boyfriend Reinhart (Ben Münchow). Reinhart, East Berlin’s answer to Llewyn Davies, was imprisoned following the East German Uprising of 1953, and freed because of what Eliza can provide to the government. Eliza is a terrible spy, and it says nothing positive about Scott’s own skills that he just…doesn’t seem to notice?
The six-episode series is a glossy spy thriller paint-by-numbers, everything we’ve seen before, in really nice trappings.
“I long for boring”, Scott assures East German photographer/ally Ulrike Faber (Johanna Wokalek) after a day of betrayals and backstabbing, but does he really? Does he even know what that means? The problem with Spy City is that no one seems to know what anything means, not even the people who are pulling all of the strings.
Immaculately costumed and beautifully shot, Spy City never entirely rises above its aesthetic appeal. The twists and turns and dramatic hallways of East and West Berlin are the same as we’ve seen before. A plot point involving CIA operative Greer is so telegraphed that it carries no dramatic weight. A “secret plan” of the East German government revealed late in the series is a surprise to no one watching who knows a thing about world history, and it’s revealed too late for our characters to appropriately react from their viewpoints. The sixth and final episode features plenty of historical footage blended into the narrative, but rather than enhance the experience it ends the series almost like a documentary. Cutting from the real, worried faces of Berlin residents to Cooper reacting to a reenactment cheapens the emotion that seeing one or the other could have provided.
As much as show, not tell, is an effective storytelling method, it would have been nice to know anything more about Scott’s previous relationships with Severine and Greer; Reinhart is painted as the worst sort of cliche musician boyfriend until he suddenly isn’t, and the relationship between Scott and Ulrike is placed on the backburner to Scott and Severine until almost the end of the series, and by then it’s, once more, too late. So much time is spent with smokey rooms, cocktails, and import-laden facial expressions that the conclusion is muddled and disappointing. Spy City is an ultimately forgettable endeavor.
Spy City premieres on AMC+ on April 15th.