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Without Keri Russell, The Diplomat Would Be Background Noise

Her performance is the only focused part of Netflix’s aimless political thriller.
  • Keri Russell in The Diplomat (Photo: Netflix)
    Keri Russell in The Diplomat (Photo: Netflix)

    Debora Cahn was a producer on The West Wing, but you don’t need her résumé to tell you that. Just watch a few minutes of her Netflix drama The Diplomat, which is essentially an Aaron Sorkin homage. As it follows the complex inner workings of an American government office, the series creates drama by blending passionate political speeches with scandalous romantic subplots. It also name checks world leaders and recent catastrophes, just to remind the folks at home that it will always do the homework. It wouldn’t be surprising if C.J. Cregg turned up to run a press briefing.

    Sometimes, Cahn works the Sorkinisms to her advantage. In early episodes, the series buzzes with energy as it introduces Kate Wyler (Keri Russell), a career diplomat who’s yanked out of the Middle East and appointed the American ambassador to England. The familiar walk-and-talk style complements her rush from one British building to another, with a stream of government employees chattering about official duties and photo ops. Russell locks into this rhythm. By the end of the first episode, when Kate has muscled her way into high-profile meetings and put herself in the middle of an international terrorist incident, it’s clear the actress has captured the character’s stubborn verve.

    It’s exciting to see Russell barrel through the role. On The Americans, she often built her performance out of contained fury and watchful suspicion, but here, she’s a hurricane, storming through rooms, tossing off obscenities, and lecturing heads of state if she thinks they’re acting like fools. She balances that confidence with Kate’s temper, grunting and sometimes even shaking when things don’t go her way. That touch of comedy keeps the show from getting preachy, even when the aforementioned terrorist incident triggers season-long consequences. Considering how many recent thrillers have treated their protagonists like ethical saints, The Diplomat stands out by focusing on an antisocial hothead who hates wearing dresses and asking for permission.

    Kate’s an even more successful character because she’s paired with her husband Hal (Rufus Sewell), a fellow diplomat who has no problem putting his own ambitions ahead of his wife’s career. He’s all charm and good-ole-boy dealmaking, which makes him both an excellent government asset and a thorn in Kate’s side. Sewell plays him with a mischievous ease that pairs well with Russell’s brute force, and while they argue about negotiating tactics, they generate enough heat to start a fire in a diplomatic vehicle.

    Their chemistry sells the best scene in the entire season, when an argument about their marriage devolves into a wrestling match in an English garden, with Russell swinging a tree branch around and Sewell yelling insults that would shock the crowned prince. It’s a delicious bit of anarchy, and it carries to the next scene, when Kate talks to the U.S president (Michael McKean) while picking leaves out of her hair. That's a fabulous evocation of the show’s thesis that personal and political unions are made of the same, volatile stuff.

    However, the fight comes in the third episode of an eight-episode season. Shortly after Kate dusts off her dress, the series becomes inert. There’s a subplot about the top-secret reason she was actually picked to be the British ambassador, and in almost every episode, a new person learns the details. Each time we have to hear the same speech about what’s happening, along with the same startled protests from whomever’s getting the news. Similarly, there’s a never-ending rondelay about which country is responsible for that terrorist attack, and a tiresome arc about two of Kate’s co-workers negotiating the details of their office romance.

    The repetitions are so inconsequential that episodes five, six, and seven could be cut from the season and the finale would still make sense. So while The Diplomat might be smart, it doesn’t require close attention. Viewers should be able to follow what’s happening, even if they’re making dinner or folding laundry while the show makes its lofty statements in the background.

    The Diplomat streams April 20 on Netflix. Join the discussion about the series 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: The Diplomat, Netflix, Aaron Sorkin, Debora Cahn, Keri Russell, Michael McKean, Rufus Sewell