The Recruit has plenty of shoot-outs and double-crosses and complicated spycraft maneuvers involving secret passages underneath suburban homes. What it mostly has, though, is men in their underwear. In its eight-episode first season, the Netflix spy drama finds an impressively varied number of reasons to get its hero Owen Hendricks (Noah Centineo) down to his skivvies, up to and including climbing out of a freezing river where he has jumped to avoid getting shot by assassins. We also get barely-dressed moments with several of the supporting hunks, which creates the vertiginous sensation that somehow, it’s easier to save the world without clothes on.
This is not a complaint. In fact, it’s a testament to The Recruit’s fizzy blend of silliness and action that the skin doesn’t feel gratuitous. It’s a natural part of a show that’s as much about charm and sex appeal as it is about catching bad guys. If it had been made 20 years ago, it might’ve been on USA, sandwiched between frothy capers like White Collar and Burn Notice. Of course, then it wouldn’t have had such an obviously generous budget, which series creator Alexi Hawley (who also helmed ABC’s The Rookie) spends on gorgeous international vistas and a collection of spy fashions that make James Bond seem under-dressed. The opulence, like the almost-nudity, only enhances the fun and the fantasy.
Oh right: There’s also a story. On his first day of work, Owen, a CIA lawyer, discovers a letter from a prisoner in Arizona who claims she will spill agency secrets if someone doesn’t bust her out of jail. There are just enough details in her note to make her sound legit, and within roughly 20 seconds, Noah finds himself tangled in an international plot involving drugs, missles, and murder.
The prisoner’s name is Max (Laura Haddock), and she’s a Belarusian assassin with a dark personal history and an unflappable self-confidence that unsettles young Owen. Since he thinks of himself as a Tom Cruise-level hotshot, he’s flustered by this woman who can so easily get under his skin. Don’t bother guessing if they sleep together. Of course they do. And of course their love-hate romance pulls Owen’s roommates into his spy games. And of course both Noah and Max push each other to confront buried parts of themselves, which adds emotional texture to their many, many scenes of shooting, running, and sliding down banisters.
To its credit, the series doesn’t get bogged down in all this. Both the conspiracies and the emotional arcs are written well enough to compliment our intelligence, but the episodes are driven by the rush of danger and glamor. This isn’t a brooding drama like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, where the point is to ponder the existential cost of sinning on behalf of a country that doesn’t deserve it. This is a good-time escape like Prime Video’s Reacher or FX’s The Old Man, designed for people who want their fun to have a bit more substance than they get from a network procedural.
A show like this lives by its ability to seem effortless, and The Recruit is as well-oiled as one of the tiny guns that Max keeps pulling from her boots. Credit has to go to Doug Liman, who executive produces and directs the first two episodes. He mastered this type of storytelling when he directed The Bourne Identity and Mr. And Mrs. Smith, both of which move like rockets as they send beautiful people into fraught situations.
As energetic as they are, those movies also make it easy to follow what’s happening, and so does The Recruit. Even when the story is ridiculous, the beat-by-beat logic of each scene is clear. In one extended sequence, Owen uses FaceTime to get advice from Max about how to escape from a locked bathroom in a double-wide trailer before a hitman breaks down the door. The scenario may be ludicrous, but it’s shot and edited so well that we can track each step in Owen’s journey to freedom. That type of narrative clarity makes the show satisfying, even if we know it’s a lark.
Just as importantly, everyone in the cast has chemistry. Like so many feuding screen couples before them, Centineo and Haddock crackle with sexual heat and mutual exasperation, but the rest of the cast also makes an impression. Kaylah Zander steals her scenes as Amelia, a CIA lawyer who’s obsessed with becoming a TV news anchor. When Owen discovers the fake TV studio she has set up in her apartment, she reacts with calm confidence, like she’s a phone call away from becoming Katie Couric. It’s such an intriguing, low-key choice for such an eccentric detail that viewers may want Amelia to have her own show. Meanwhile, Kristian Bruun is fun as a stressed-out, paranoid agent convinced that even going to sleep can cause disaster, and as Owen’s boss, Vondie Curtis Hall has a no-nonsense gravitas that emphasizes how reckless his people are.
In a final coup, the season ends with a cliffhanger that could serve as a perfectly satisfying series finale. Even if it goes no further, then, The Recruit can give thriller fans what they need. And if it does come back, we can look forward to more clever excuses for Owen to strip down.
The Recruit premieres December 16 on Netflix. Join the discussion on the show in our forums.
Mark Blankenship is Primetimer's Reviews Editor. Tweet him at @IAmBlankenship.