The Friends alum returns to television with a smart, if disposable, slacker-spy comedy.
Originally airing on Sky One in the UK last February, workplace sitcom Intelligence makes its way to the States as part of the launch for Peacock, NBCUniversal’s entry into the Great Streaming Wars. Will this droll comedy about a disgraced American NSA agent who joins up with Britain’s Cyber Crime division move the needle towards NBC? Probably not, but it’s still worth checking out before binging an entire season of The Office.
The big draw here is David Schwimmer returning to an NBC sitcom 16 years after Friends, maybe the last monoculture comedy before the TV landscape broke off into a million pieces. Here he plays NSA agent Jerry Bernstein, who moves to the UK to team up with the Government Communications Headquarters, the basement-dwelling computer nerds of the British Intelligence world.
From the moment he steps off the plane and blocks travelers in the airport trying to walk on a moving platform, we know Jerry is going to be a few shades darker than Ross. He’s racist, sexist, and a self-proclaimed “dashing American fuck fox.” Worst of all, his favorite film is The Greatest Showman. What pulls the character from the brink of un-watchability is Schwimmer’s performance; Jerry has the dorky relatability of Ross on Friends, but Schwimmer leavens it by being absolutely self-confident while never letting us forget he’s a sad little boy underneath it all.
When Jerry arrives for his new assignment, he meets bumbling computer analyst Joseph Harries (Nick Mohammed) before immediately making fun of how short he is. Mohammed, who created the show—and writes every episode and co-stars—is not as well known in America as he is in the UK unless you recognize his voice as Piglet for all you Christopher Robin-heads out there. Nevertheless, he should be a welcome discovery for U.S. audiences. Joseph is immediately likable as a dummy who is able to scrape by from just being an endlessly positive and happy person.
The rest of the cast is filled with top-notch British actors who are in command of their characters from the start. The head of the agency, Christine Clark (Sylvestra Le Touzel), is perfect as the strict boss whose reserved nature clashes with Jerry’s abrasiveness, igniting much of the tension of the show. The way she describes America as “one of our oldest and closest allies” with such vitriol in her voice expertly conveys how most of the world thinks of the country now.
Another standout is Jane Stanness as the constantly disheveled Mary. Every scene she’s in reveals a new, bizarre layer to her character, like in one scene where Jerry is administering a polygraph test on her. He asks, “Would you ever betray your country for drugs, money or sex?” to which she replies, “Sex.”. Eliot Salt, who had an excellent supporting role in Normal People earlier this year, also does great work here as Evelyn, a personal assistant who spends more time taking naps than actually assisting.
What pulls the character from the brink of un-watchability is Schwimmer’s performance.
Mohammed also displays his solid writing chops in all six episodes. Each one is a brisk 22 minutes long, with the main premise of each episode seamlessly introduced and executed. But the most important part of a workplace comedy is the jokes, and fitting to its title, Intelligence desires to be more clever than funny. You can have all the ingredients like a compelling setting and a great ensemble, but when there are long stretches without any laughs, it can be all for nothing. The jokes come too few and far between, and when they occasionally land, it’s worth maybe a polite chuckle.
Along with Mohammed taking the writing duties, longtime TV director Matt Lipsey helms each episode as well, giving the season a uniformed, auteur feel. He makes sure the set dressing is boring and the lighting is as drab as possible, making the usually sexy world of cyber espionage seem more like an existential death trap. Most importantly, he gets out of the way of the performers and lets them do their thing.
Intelligence doesn’t break any new ground, and it probably won’t put Peacock on top of the other streaming giants out there. However, it’s a solid return vehicle for Schwimmer to the world of television sitcoms. If anything, it could be a nice introduction to American audiences to Mohammed’s uniquely dorky comic persona, who will hopefully get to charm us some more in the future.
Intelligence hits Peacock when the platform launches July 15th.
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