Amazon Prime Builds a Weak ‘Citadel’

It was supposed to be the linchpin for world streaming domination. Instead it’s a Russo Brothers dud.

Incredible as the idea may sound, Amazon Prime once intended its action show Citadel to be the lynchpin of its plot for world domination. Amazon Studios chief Jennifer Salke personally recruited the Russo Brothers and their production company AGBO for a concept of a global spy show with foreign language versions existing in the same shared universe, with the American show acting as a kind of mothership. Supposedly Italian and Indian versions are already in development. But Citadel has rapidly gone from Amazon Prime’s big bang to a big whimper–it’s the second most expensive show Amazon Prime has ever made, for reasons almost as ignominious as The Rings of Power, which occupies the top spot. They have constantly retooled and reshot the show, with an originally eight-hour first season now clocking in at just four.

This backstory may surprise more casual viewers of Citadel, who are likely to see nothing more than a fairly derivative and unimpressive spy show. Ironically, this behind-the-scenes action is considerably more interesting and dramatic than anything in the actual show. Citadel is the good deep state, preventing all the bad things from happening everywhere. Manticore is the bad deep state, trying to make bad things happen everywhere. It’s possible that there’s a twist and actually the roles are reversed, maybe, but the only real evidence for this is that Citadel and Manticore are both such vaguely defined organizations a subsequent episode could make up nearly any twist it wanted to without actually contradicting anything.

It’s easy enough to see a lot of the logic behind why Amazon made Citadel. People like spy stuff. They liked shared universes. The Russo Brothers are famous for doing that kind of stuff, even if they’re not the showrunners. That honor first went to Josh Appelbaum, famous for such mid-teens era hits as the two Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies from that time period. Then Amazon replaced him with David Weil, whose main claim to fame is Hunters, and who has the sole writing credit for the single worst episode of that show, an irrelevant standalone story about a minor character that reimagines Home Alone with Anne Frank as the protagonist.

These aren’t the people you want to create a world-spanning spy franchise. They’re only just barely the people you want in charge for an already existing brand. So it comes as little surprise that Citadel quickly struggles to justify its own existence. The opening episode takes place on a train and is so comically on the nose in terms of the tropes used, it reminded me of the story train episode of Rick and Morty, of all things. This is actually the high point in terms of references, as absurd as that may sound. Future highlights include our two main agent characters getting amnesia, like Jason Bourne, with an explicit reference to Jason Bourne  just in case we didn’t notice how derivative the plot point was.

Later Stanley Tucci, who plays Bernard Orlick, some important…guy in Citadel, makes a Statler and Waldorf reference to…indicate that he’s old I guess? Oh, and also that our leading man, Mason Kane, is kind of a jerk, deliberately baiting his colleague into spoiling his other colleague’s presentation. Mason Kane himself is just the most generic concept imaginable. He’s got a cool name.  Richard Madden, probably best known as Robb Stark in Game of Thrones, plays him. That’s really about it as far as personality goes.

His leading lady Nadia Sinh isn’t much better. Priyanka Chopra Jonas is just…a mysterious agent, I guess. For some reason unclear to me, while the show makes an attempt to humanize Mason Kane by giving him a family over his amnesiac period, Nadia Sinh just gets a generic job so nondescript I can’t even remember what it was and am so unsure that Citadel even said what it was that I don’t want to try and look it up. So much of the writing is so frustratingly low-effort it’s honestly kind of offensive. The action scenes are all right, I guess, with so much fancy tech on the train I was briefly wondering whether the story took place in the not-too-distant future. But nope, just our regular boring world with multiple deep states. No urgency, no energy, no relevance. Citadel just sort of aggressively is.


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William Schwartz

William Schwartz is a reporter and film critic based in Seoul, South Korea. He writes primarily for HanCinema, the world's largest and most popular English language database for South Korean television dramas and films.

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