Movies can be taut. They're two hours long; they've got you in one place for that whole time; and the tension gets cranked up so tight that you can feel you’re nailed to the chair. Suspenseful political thrillers make for great movies. They don't always make for good TV shows. For one thing, most shows can't be expected to maintain that level of tension over the course of six, eight, or even 10 hours. And yet so many TV thrillers make the mistake of trying to keep our nerves jangling non-stop. Apple TV+’s Liaison (the platform's first Anglo-French production) falls into this trap, and as a result it wastes its sexy and beguiling stars, Eva Green and Vincent Cassel.
Liaison’s plot will be familiar to anyone who has watched political thrillers in the years since 24 (a show that, for a time, got away with its relentless tension because of the novelty of its format). A pair of cousins from Damascus — Samir (Aziz Dyab) and Walid (Marco Horanieh) — break into Syrian police servers and accidentally come across plans for a coordinated series of cyber-attacks on the UK.
Cassel plays a private contractor, Gabriel Delage, who's commissioned by French intelligence to bring in the Syrians, only the pick-up gets ambushed, Samir and Walid go on the run, and the cyber-attacks begin, with British intelligence unaware of what's at play. Green, meanwhile, plays Alison Rowdy, an intelligence agent with MI5 who has a romantic past with Delage and who knows, as soon as she sees his face on surveillance footage, that this whole operation has gotten a lot more complex.
As Liaison goes on, the plot becomes more complicated, and more reflective of the current political climate. Samir tries to evade capture/assassination by hiding out within the refugee population in London. The shadow of Brexit looms large as the French and English governments' fundamental mistrust of each other is an impediment to stopping the attacks. Untrustworthy operators lurk on both sides.
All of this is meant to keep the audience guessing and their attention rapt, but it's all so typical for the genre that none of it stands out. A TV thriller needs to know that it's far more about the journey than the destination. Six hours of international subterfuge cannot be carried on plot alone.
Shows like these desperately need an X factor. The Night Manager was deeply stylish, took place in gorgeous locations, and had an unbelievable cast that included Tom Hiddleston, Elizabeth Debicki, and Olivia Colman. The Honourable Woman focused on Maggie Gyllenhaal's otherworldly performance, while Homeland piled so many interpersonal quirks onto its characters that hardly anyone remembers what the plot was anymore.
To that end, Liaison has a pair of secret weapons in Green and Cassel, two wildly alluring performers who often exude danger and unknowability. That makes them great as femme fatales (as Green was in Casino Royale) or captivating villains (as Cassel was in Ocean's Twelve). But their appeal can be flattened when they’re forced to carry a convoluted story. Green has worked best in lead roles in projects that crank up the surreality around her, like on Showtime's Penny Dreadful. Here, she's wasted in both whispered conversations with her boss in British intelligence (Westworld’s Peter Mullan) and a subplot with her boyfriend and his daughter, who are inserted into the story in order to tether Alison to her home. This just keeps the series from leaning on Alison and Delage's sexual chemistry, which might have helped Liaison rise above the well-worn nature of its premise.
Would Liaison have been better as a movie? Maybe — then we'd have been stuck in a vise grip with Green, Cassel, and the ticking clock of a terrorist plot. There are worse ways to spend a couple of hours, but after six hour-long episodes, what was once taut becomes tedious.
Liaison premieres February 24 on AppleTV+. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.
Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.
TOPICS: Liaison, Apple TV+, Eva Green, Vincent Cassel