In the post-9/11 media landscape, the spy thriller has again come into its own as a genre that offers visceral subject matter for a wide audience. Despite the renewed marketability of stories dealing with international espionage and terror, television producers have more often than not failed to seize upon opportunities to create truly original stories that utilize a backdrop of action and intrigue as a canvas for exploring the human conditions that exists in a very real and dangerous part of our world.
The Diplomat, a two-part miniseries produced by RHI Entertainment and premiering January 24 at 7:00 p.m. ET on ION Television (check your local cable provider for availability and channel), aims to give cable audiences a fresh look at that dark place and the people who walk therein.
Dougray Scott – most recently seen by American audiences on Desperate Housewives - plays Ian Porter, a British diplomat suspected of being an accomplice of a Russian arms and drugs trafficker when a sting by Scotland Yard turns up evidence against him. As an investigation commences, led by Detective Chief Inspector Julie Hales (Rachael Blake), Porter is discovered in truth to be an agent of British foreign intelligence (MI-6) and is persuaded to maintain silence about his Russian contacts by his handler, MI-6 officer Charles Van Koos (Richard Roxburgh). When the Russians intimidate his ex-wife, Pippa (Claire Forlani, Meet Joe Black, CSI: NY), the estranged couple are brought into the British equivalent of the witness protection program.
While Ian and Pippa Porter are in protective custody, Scotland Yard continues to squeeze Ian for information while he plots for eventual escape in order to complete his mission, to disrupt the sale of nuclear suitcase bombs to unnamed terrorists. The story unfolds to reveal a complex web of relations between MI-6 and the Russian arms traffickers that provides significant intrigue. It also sheds light on elements of Ian Porter’s character, answering the question of why he has chosen a path of danger.
Dougray Scott does a good job of playing an emotionally tortured man, besieged by demons from his past, demons which he shares with Pippa. The tension is like an emotional ice field that must, of course, be thawed. Fertile ground for storytelling, to be sure, but although Scott has a gritty toughness it is not tempered in this role by a sufficient amount of charm. Thus, no chemistry develops between Scott and Forlani (who had achieved intense on-screen chemistry with Brad Pitt in her best known role), making the story’s climax a difficult sell.
But for the excellent technical work under the direction of Peter Andrikidis, the dramatically shot locations of Sydney, London, and Tajikistan and superior performances of the supporting cast, The Diplomat would have had its credentials revoked shortly after the gripping five-minute opening sequence. As ethically confused MI-6 officer Van Koos, Roxburgh carries the entire ensemble forward when moments and minutes of story seem ready to dissolve into meaninglessness. Also notable is Jeffrey Lindsay Taylor’s role as the guard assigned to protect the Porters during their stay in Australia. Both actors provide first-rate performances, breathing life into scenes that might otherwise leave audiences yawning.
In the final analysis, the producers of The Diplomat appear to have had the ambition to create a work that drew from a deeper palate than other television thrillers by delving who these characters really are and what led them to be in the dark space of the story. Perhaps the goal was to tell the story in a style reminiscent of the realism of Syriana or Michael Clayton. (In some moments, The Diplomat does bear a stylistic resemblance to those excellent examples of this genre.) If so, though the result may have been a faint and roughly drawn sketch of greater films, it should serve as a jumping-off point for future television productions in its category.