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Amazon Launches a Vapid New TV Universe With Citadel

The Russo Brothers' expensive thriller is supposed to launch a Prime Video empire.
  • Priyanka Chopra Jona in Citadel (Photo: Prime Video)
    Priyanka Chopra Jona in Citadel (Photo: Prime Video)

    British ambassador Dahlia Archer (Lesley Manville) is Citadel’s villain, and she’s so very evil that when the U.S. Secretary of State refuses to do what she wants, she promises to kill his family. She’s so very evil that when a reporter asks her on camera if Britain has too much power, she suggests the reporter herself is an enemy combatant who will be punished if she doesn’t change the subject. She’s so very evil that while she watches her goons torture a spy named Bernard Orlick (Stanley Tucci), she eats a large piece of cake.

    In other words, Dahlia, who’s part of a shady global network called Manticore, is about as subtle as a roundhouse kick to the face. And speaking of kicks to the face: Citadel has several of those per episode, along with punches to the throat and gunshots to the gut. Many of these blows are delivered in a speeding SUV or on a train that’s about to explode, because in this Prime Video thriller, things never go small.

    In the midst of this excitement, there’s also a plot. Eight years ago, Manticore decided to wipe out Citadel, a century-old network of super spies committed to solving the world’s biggest problems. The baddies eliminated almost every Citadel agent, with a few key exceptions. One was Bernard, a tech genius with a knack for designing gadgets. The other two were Nadia Sinh (Priyanka Chopra Jonas) and Mason Kane (Richard Madden), who survived an assassination attempt, only to end up with amnesia. In the present day, Bernard tracks them both down and reminds them who they are. Then he tells them it’s time to start kicking butts again.

    If that seems convoluted, then just wait: Because he thought they might get captured after surviving that assassination attempt, Bernard himself triggered Nadia and Mason’s amnesia by activating some kind of device in their necks, and now he happens to have syringes full of goo that will give them their memories back. The syringes even have the agents’ names on them, because apparently, there’s a special formula for Nadia’s brain that won’t work for Mason’s, and vice versa. And they’d better hurry up and dose themselves, since Bernard needs them to protect “the X-Case,” a Citadel briefcase filled with nuclear codes and other information Manticore craves.

    You could lose sleep trying to understand this. It doesn’t make sense that an organization as sophisticated as Citadel would hide its most valuable information in a piece of carry-on luggage. Nor does it track that memories can be erased by a neck implant, but can only be restored by an injection of secret sauce. As each new plot twist crashes into the story, it’s easier to say, “Sure! Why not?” and just enjoy the sensory rush.

    Because as a purely visceral experience, Citadel delivers. Steered by David Weil (Hunters) and executive produced by the Russo Brothers (Avengers: Endgame), it combines energy and whimsy into agreeably frictionless entertainment. Somebody’s always cracking a joke while running from an angry European with a rifle, and sometimes, that’s all that’s needed to pass the time. Plus, the three episodes screened for critics are beautifully designed. Nothing looks plain: A train car bathroom has interesting lines, and the winter gear agents wear for a shootout on a snowy mountaintop has a stylish interplay of black and white fabrics. Along with the well-choreographed fights, these touches give the show a visual sophistication that counters its artless storytelling.

    The actors embody the glossy aesthetics. Manville is a standout, letting Dahlia’s wicked commands ooze like poison from her mouth, and Tucci matches her, turning Bernard into a smartass who loves teasing good guys and bad guys alike. Madden and Chopra Jonas, meanwhile, supply the charisma and sexual heat their roles require. Neither Mason nor Nadia seem like people, exactly, but they do seem like charming, confident heroes who can flirt with each other in multiple languages before tossing assailants over their heads like sacks of flour. It’s fun to watch them save the world.

    However, Citadel is supposed to be more than fun. It’s supposed to build an empire. Prime Video has already commissioned multiple spin-offs in other languages, preemptively assuming the original is such a can’t-miss proposition that people across the world will be clamoring for their own versions. And because there was so much pressure on the first series to launch a mega-brand, it was massively overhauled before it hit American screens. Half the original creative team left in the midst of making the first season, with the Russos and Weil coming on board as fixers. In the process the budget got so big that this is now the second most-expensive series ever made.

    In that light, Citadel’s emptiness is offensive. It would be one thing for a silly little action drama to get thrown on a streaming service, just to see if it sticks. Netflix does this all the time with its thrillers, and their status as middlebrow entertainment is reflected in their budgets and their rollouts. The gag is that these interchangeable shows are typically better than Citadel. Much better. In the first few months of 2023 alone, The Recruit, The Night Agent, and Kaleidoscope have delivered more coherent plots and more richly drawn characters. Prime Video itself has the excellent Reacher sitting in its library, proving the power of good storytelling in an action franchise. How dispiriting that the show with all the money is the worst of the lot.

    And how depressing that when this corporate behemoth and these entertainment-industrial-complex producers decided to will a global brand into being, Citadel was the best they could do. They’ve already sunk so much into this vapid franchise that they may force it to chug along for several more years, but nothing can make it worth such a gargantuan effort. A project like this, created in this context, just soils the idea of escapist fun.

    Citadel premieres April 28 on Prime Video. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Mark Blankenship has been writing about arts and culture for twenty years, with bylines in The New York Times, Variety, Vulture, Fortune, and many others. You can hear him on the pop music podcast Mark and Sarah Talk About Songs.

    TOPICS: Citadel, Prime Video, Lesley Manville, Priyanka Chopra, Richard Madden, Russo Brothers, Stanley Tucci