It is not, by any means, easy to dip into a show like The Diplomat, Netflix’s imposing new political drama (premiering April 20). The series seems to pride itself on its density, making no effort to ingratiate itself to viewers that need a little hand-holding. From the jump, The Diplomat is shifting pieces around the board at a brisk pace, with characters entrenched in layers-upon-layers of complex detail before they’ve even had a chance to tell us what their names are. Its rapidly flying geopolitical buzzwords would be hard enough to follow, if the show’s velocity weren’t already challenging audiences not to get distracted by a barking dog or a push notification.
That’s as deliberate as it is surprising. The Diplomat was created by Debora Cahn, who co-produced and wrote similarly daunting shows like The West Wing and Homeland. Now, Cahn brings the narrative intricacies of those shows to Netflix, a streamer beloved for its conceptual programming—which isn’t exactly designed to be viewed with much intention. Netflix produces and distributes hits that are great for viewers with a short attention span.
Its product even affirms this, with options to watch shows at 1.5 times the speed of their normal rate. That’s not to mention that ever-frustrating autoplay interface, which screams content previews at you until you choose a selection or become so irate, you close the app and move somewhere else.
The Diplomat feels almost out of place on a platform like Netflix for these reasons. But if you can accept that a television show really is demanding your undivided attention, like it should, you’ll quickly find yourself swept up in a riveting, intellectual whirlwind.
The series stars Keri Russell as U.S. Ambassador Kate Wyler, who is plucked from her next international outpost and shipped off to the U.K., after an unknown party bombs a British military vessel. Unwilling to play the part of an editorial-ready diplomat, Kate has to weave between the different sets of expectations from American and British governments, forming strategic relationships, and making quick-thinking power plays in situations with catastrophic international implications. If she wasn’t busy enough trying to stop the British Prime Minister from launching a retaliatory military attack on every suspected culprit, Kate also has to contain her career ambassador husband, Hal (Rufus Sewell), whose motivations hardly ever align with her own.
Naturally, each episode is replete with intricate dialogue. In the world of international diplomacy, that’s what moves things forward behind the scenes: tricky, tangled conversations. Besides the carrier ship explosion that opens the premiere episode, you won’t find high-speed chases or shootouts aplenty here. For those, you can jump on over to the mega-hit The Night Agent, which will surely prove more popular, despite its proclivity for sacrificing clever storytelling for rote, loud thrills.
That’s not to say that The Diplomat isn’t thrilling, just that it prefers to eke out its electrifying plot intrigues at a more proficient—and ultimately rewarding—pace. At last, here’s a new series that remembers how to operate like an actual season of television, not a just-fine film that was needlessly expanded into eight mini-movies. The show is armed with a talented team of writers, who dare to go against the grain by refusing to provide instant answers to even small questions. How does that character know this person? Why did that person do that thing? Why did she respond in that way? You’ll have to wait and see, and you’ll like it.
But even the most talented writers in the world couldn’t keep a show this politically erudite on track without a convincing team of actors at the helm. Russell is magnificently cast as Kate. After a long stint on FX’s similarly obtuse (and thematically comparable) The Americans, Russell comes to The Diplomat raring to go. Her skill as a performer is so finely tuned that it only becomes apparent how fantastic she is when the credits roll, and you remember that you were watching a scripted television show, not a word-for-word reenactment of highly sensitive international dealings.
It would be simple for Russell to replicate everything she did so well on The Americans, creating a character well-honed but ultimately recognizable. Instead, she refuses to go through the motions, turning Kate into a brilliantly unpredictable force of nature—one who could rival Felicity Porter and Elizabeth Jennings for the title of Russell’s most iconic role.
It certainly doesn’t hurt, either, that she’s supported by an equally gifted cast. Sewell brings his typical dazzling charm to Hal Wyler, playing perfectly off Russell to convince viewers of the veracity of their twisted dynamic. Co-stars Ato Essandoh, Ali Ahn, and Nana Mensah deftly round out Kate’s team of political cheerleaders, who are just as willing to intervene to stop her from creating an international crisis as they are driven by their own agendas.
It’s in scrutinizing those agendas where The Diplomat finds its groove. Kate hasn’t just been chosen for the American ambassadorship in the U.K. because she’s damn good at her job. She’s also inadvertently found herself in the midst of a litmus test that could change the course of her career, and life, forever. When the American Vice President lands in hot water mid-tenure, Kate is pushed to fill the post. Kate’s the best person for the job, but is far too curt to ever survive the campaign trail. “You’d tell your donors they’re corrupt right to their faces,” Hal says to her. If Kate chooses to accept it, it’s a once-in-history chance to bring power to someone who can really use it, not someone who really wants it.
With so much at stake, The Diplomat mines more than enough excitement in the privileged halls of international offices. And, like all great political dramas, it never feels like propaganda either. Though the show is often discussing real-life moves from major powers like Russia and Iran, it wisely repeats that acting on intelligence that isn’t fully-formed could have catastrophic results. Its assertions are carefully formed, building upon themselves as the series moves forward. Imagine, television that doesn’t smack you over the head with its dissection of different ideologies from the jump—what a novel concept!
The Diplomat does a tremendous job of juggling highly political insider jargon with just enough episodic character building, so as to not show all of its cards at once. Instead, Russell, Cahn, and company keep viewers hanging on to see which hand it will deal next. The series is a tough nut to crack at first, and many will find that exterior completely impenetrable. This is not a 1.5x speed background watch. But once you remember that every line in an esoteric drama like this isn’t supposed to make sense the moment it falls out of someone’s mouth, The Diplomat transforms from palatable to remarkable.