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‘Diplomat,’ ‘Night Agent’ are both bingeable but ridiculous shows

The Diplomat and The Night Agent are near the top of the Netflix ratings. Both exemplify post-peak television, or Trough Television. 

During the so-called golden age of streaming, now coming to an end, streamers threw money at new showrunning and writing talent, encouraging all sorts of interesting experiments in series television. 

There were glorious successes (The White Lotus) and failures (Reboot) as everyone swung for the fences and created too much content for any one viewer to watch. That money is drying up, and we are now seeing a lot of content that seems designed to appeal to the algorithm, milk existing successful content for additional seasons, and indulge in older established ideas about what appeals to viewers. Enter The Diplomat and The Night Agent!

Keri Russell stars (and broods) as ‘The Diplomat.’

The Diplomat stars Keri Russell, who is the perfect Trough Television lead female. She’s gorgeous, but she’s no longer the hot young ingenue she played on Felicity; she played a mom in Cocaine Bear. But she delivered an amazing performance in The Americans and thus can demonstrably carry a series. And – the clincher — she won’t demand a top-tier salary despite her value. 

A damsel in diplomacy

The Diplomat is very watchable, but it adheres to a common screen trope in which a woman is minding her own business when suddenly, she’s thrust into a situation she doesn’t want and yet she excels, gloriously. Male characters can have goals, state them clearly at the beginning of the movie and then face down one obstacle after another until they realize their vision. A woman’s success should be accidental and unwanted. She must be discovered, like Lana Turner at the Schwab’s drug store soda counter. 

Take Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face. She does not want to model! She’s a serious poetry student. But Fred Astaire and Kay Thompson make her model. Boy, does she look lovely in those gowns. But she hates every moment of it. The whole point of the movie is to watch Hepburn swan around Paris posing for Astaire’s camera. It would be a different movie entirely if Audrey said “oh fuck YEAH” when Fred Astaire sauntered up to her in that bookshop and asked if he could photograph her. 

We’ve come a long way since 1957. But have we? On the one hand, Kate Wyler (Russell) isn’t playing a model. She’s a foreign service officer, an international policy nerd who has no desire to do anything but do her job well, live in Third World countries, and prevent unnecessary wars. 

Russell gives a great performance. She brilliantly plays a character who is really good at her job. She’s not a woman in a man’s world with something to prove.  She’s just authentically and intrinsically good at it. You see her agile mind making careful but skillful decisions about each move she needs to make. 

Yes, it’s bullshit that they’re putting a policy nerd who has no desire to be in the spotlight in the spotlight. Officials usually give the ambassador posts for European first world countries like England and France to political cronies as thanks for helping them win elections. Kate would never get the ambassadorship to England. Not because she’s not qualified – she’s just not that kind of politician.  

And look! They’re making her live in this lovely countryside English home with a huge domestic staff and art on the walls and a garden! British Vogue is doing a story on her making her wear a pretty dress. She has to walk the red carpet and wear additional pretty dresses. Kate/Keri doesn’t want any part of it. She just wants to do her job!

Nonsensical plot twists

But wait, there’s more! The reason they’re making her the ambassador to England is because they’re secretly grooming her to be the next vice president. Apparently, the current vice president is stepping down soon. You’d think that maybe if you were planning to replace the vice president with an unknown foreign service officer, you might want to ask this unknown foreign service officer if this is something she’d, you know, be interested in doing? Nope. Not in this series.

Sure, I get why it might be unnerving to have British Vogue show up at your house, slap a dress on you and make you pose for photos.  And it might be a little daunting to be told that you’re expected to be the new vice president of the United States in a few months. 

But would it kill Kate’s character progression to have her do something normal and human like catch a glimpse of herself styled to the nines for the Vogue editorial and say “Wow, I look hot! This is kind of fun!”? Or “I’m gonna be vice president! Wow, that’s a bit much, but thanks, I’m super flattered!”? Or “This is my house? Cool!”? 

That would go a long way. Otherwise, I’m having trouble relating to Kate and having sympathy for her predicament. That’s not to say that The Diplomat isn’t a good show. It’s very bingeable. I just couldn’t stop wondering why Kate has to be such an ungrateful shrew all the time. 

Watchable stupidity

Also bingeable for different reasons is The Night Agent. The Diplomat is all surface quality: crackling dialogue, charismatic performances, bucolic settings and great clothes which hide a cheesy retrograde premise. The Night Agent is cheap looking and badly acted, but you can’t stop watching.

There’s a screenwriting principle known as “Save the Cat,” in which you show your character doing something that makes the audience root for them in order to make the audience more invested in that character. The Night Agent literally begins with Peter Sutherland (played by easy-on-the-eyes Gabriel Basso) offering his subway seat to a girl and her single mom, and then saving both their lives during a train bombing. 

It was so cloying, I assumed that Agent Sutherland would eventually be exposed as the very mole operating at the highest levels of government whose identity everyone was trying to figure out. They clearly wanted the audience on his side so bad, it had to be setting up a plot twist, right? No, not this show. 

Gabriel Basso gamely plays ‘The Night Agent.’

The rest of the series feels like a Lifetime movie with no battered women or a Cinemax softcore porn movie with no sex. It’s very low rent. All the interiors look like Airbnbs, including the Oval Office. All the exteriors seem Canadian.  (Because they are). The entire cast seems like they have never acted professionally before. (Because they’re mostly Canadian). 

Oh wait, Academy Award nominee Hong Chau is in this. She’s really wooden. Remember Robert Patrick from Terminator 2? He’s in this too. But the opening credits don’t mention him. It’s like he said, “Please don’t tell anyone I was in this, and hide me under layers of bad makeup.”

The show deals strangely with sex. There’s a predatory art teacher who’s trying to seduce the vice president’s daughter. He’s secretly gay and his real motivation is to get her onboard with this environmentalist terrorist organization that some other gay guy seduced him into. A pair of heterosexual assassins Ellen (Eve Harlow) and Dale (Phoenix Raei) have sex and steal babies. FBI Agent Peter Sutherland and the blandly attractive Rose Larkin, a young cybersecurity entrepreneur he’s tasked with protecting, are the good guys who gaze at each other longingly but never get a room. Sex is something that only bad people have, and it’s never fun.

The Night Agent also deals with race in a bewildering manner. The White House staff features an array of women and people of color. This would be inspirational and aspirational, if they didn’t all seem like temps hired for the day to look busy. Chau, the president’s chief of staff, wears a strange motionless gray wig and doesn’t seem to have any qualifications other than being BFFs with President Michelle Travers, played by Kari Matchett who resembles Lisa Kudrow during her Friends days. 

More Trough TV to come

And yet, it’s all quite riveting. 

The Night Agent and The Diplomat are two shows that aren’t sequels or spinoffs of existing hits, but also aren’t reinventing the wheel in terms of content. Both seem to have kept costs down by forgoing A-list talent and keeping the viewer enthralled with plotlines that move along quickly and hypnotically. And both are already set for a second season. 

In the 1950s, we might have called these B-Movies. But for now, I predict we can count on a lot more Trough Television series like these, as they provide serviceable entertainment. 


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