Netflix’s new international politics drama excels thanks to excellent performances from the likes of Keri Russell and Rufus Sewell.
Behold! Netflix has created…network television!
Don’t be mistaken, The Diplomat is very good network television, but it is network television nonetheless.
For those who may not know exactly what that means, a brief flashback. Television’s golden era tends to be defined by the likes of HBO series such as The Sopranos or The Wire or cable offerings like Breaking Bad or Mad Men. Just before and alongside them were perhaps not quite as good network dramas that rose above the typical standard offerings. The West Wing and ER were good examples of these sorts of shows. They were still 20-something episode seasons, so there were bound to be disappointing or silly installments. Still, overall, they were better than most series that preceded them. The Diplomat feels like those kinds of series. Given creator Debora Cahn’s connections to the aforementioned West Wing, Grey’s Anatomy, and Homeland, among others, this makes sense.
Kate Wyler (Keri Russell) is unexpectedly chosen to become the US Ambassador to the United Kingdom. She views it as the kind of very visible but less involved diplomatic assignments that usually go to her husband Hal (Rufus Sewell). However, her first days on the job prove far more challenging than expected, as an attack on a British ship puts the United Kingdom and Iran on a path that may end in war. Complicating things is Hal’s inability to be a husband rather than try to do his wife’s job. And that’s all before Kate learns the position may be a prelude to her becoming President Rayburn’s (Michael McKean) new Vice President.
Simply put, Russell is excellent. She handles the political and soapy elements with equal aplomb. While The Diplomat is a return to international politics and machinations, Kate is a wholly different character than Russell’s The Americans’ role. All they share in common, ultimately, is Russell putting on an acting clinic.
Simply put, [Keri] Russell is excellent.
She’s ably aided and abetted by Sewell, an actor who deserves more work and recognition. Hal is playful, self-centered, and a bit of an id monster. Sewell honors those qualities without making the character a stock cad. Instead, there’s a sense of being well-meaning in his actions even as his ego and appetite repeatedly derail them.
The Diplomat is also quite smart in its depiction of a marriage in a sort of everyday trouble. Despite teetering on the edge of dissolution, there is still a sense of love, comfort, and intimacy to the Wylers. When they have sex, it isn’t an act of anger or hopelessness but an expression of feelings that exist alongside the issues that have ground them down. They occupy space with each other in a way that affirms how close they’ve been and for how long. Even when they fight, at one point physically, it doesn’t feel dangerous or out for blood.
The show has a deep bench, as well. Ato Essandoh as Deputy Chief of Mission Stuart Heyford, David Gyasi as Foreign Secretary Austin Dennison, and Rory Kinnear as the opportunistic Prime Minister Trowbridge are particular highlights. Even beyond them, though, everyone seems ready and able to sell the tone and dialogue from scripts by Cahn, Mia Chung, Anna Hagen, Amanda Johnson-Zetterström, and Peter Noah.
Visually, the series captures a sense of place and movement well. The Diplomat utilizes a quartet of directors—Andrew Bernstein, Liza Johnson, Alex Graves, and Simon Cellan Jones—to create a unified style. With credits including The Last of Us, Foundation, The Expanse, and Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, the team comes fully prepared to deliver a show that mixes the personal and political with the occasional bit of action. The watchword: well-realized competence.
So, yes, a decade after House of Cards established Netflix as a purveyor of a new kind of television series, The Diplomat finds them echoing the network series of yesteryear. However, it’s evoking the best of them. It may not be a series on par with the best of peak television, but there’s nothing wrong with delivering solid scripted drama brought to life by the likes of Russell and Sewell.
The Diplomat now settles international disputes on Neflix.