Food for the Soul: The Diplomat

I do not know about you, but I prefer spy and political shows to typical crime shows because they are a little more mentally challenging. A case in point is the first season of the latest, very popular Netflix show The Diplomat (the second season is in production). If you have not had a chance to catch it, and you are looking for something that will satisfy your intelligence, this show could do it.

Keri Russell, an actor whose range encompasses such disparate starring roles as a high schooler in love in Felicity and a Russian sleeper spy in The Americans, is the backbone of this show. She plays a woman, Kate Wyler, who is suddenly thrust into global politics when she is abruptly appointed as U.S. ambassador to the UK. While there are political purposes in her being sent to this post, Kate is not a political appointee but a career government employee. She has spent years as a CIA operative, working at various diplomatic posts alongside her husband Hal (Rufus Sewell), who used to be an ambassador, most recently in Kabul. This embassy now being closed, Kate is asked to switch from her behind-the-scenes role to a very visible position—that of a diplomatic conduit between the U.S. and UK governments. She is also switching from the role of a supportive ambassador’s wife to being an ambassador herself.

As the audience, we get a front-row seat witnessing the daily (if somewhat fictitious) life of a diplomat (the staff will pack your suitcase, but you do not have much say in where you show up, what you wear, and who you are supposed to talk to). More importantly, we watch Kate being thrust into a major international conflict when a British navy carrier is hit with a missile in the Persian Gulf, dozens of British sailors perish and Iran is blamed for the attack. She is the one who is trying to walk down the testosterone of both a flamboyant and sneaky UK prime minister (Rory Kinnear, exquisitely channeling a Boris Johnson, scorched-earth type politician) and a hostile and equally sneaky U.S. Secretary of State (Miguel Sandoval). She is also one of the few who actually understands the politics involved, having been a specialist in Middle East politics for decades. She is aided in that task by her formidable husband; Hal knows everyone and can reach out to everyone. Unfortunately, this is exactly what he does—he reaches out behind Kate’s back to get classified information and contact his intelligence counterparts. Kate’s and Hal’s marriage is already on the rocks, and his machinations exacerbate the situation to the point that the couple fights and then makes up in the style of good old Hollywood romantic comedies à la Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn.

All of these elements would be sufficient to make a watchable network show. What makes it outstandingly better is the writing. The show’s creator Debora Cahn (whose writing credits include The West Wing and Gray’s Anatomy) writes for people who like to be mentally challenged. She and her team of show writers have created repartees that are as sharp and fast as dialogues in a 1940s movie, while also weaving a web of political dependencies and negotiations that can keep you riveted throughout every one of the eight episodes. In short, they have built a plot that has the lightness of a romantic comedy and the darkness of global geopolitics at the same time. There are very few shows that achieve that level of complexity and originality of writing, reflecting a determination not to underestimate the audience. There is a reason the show placed in the Top Ten list within days of its premiere in April. Some other new Netflix shows, though ambitious and well cast, are nevertheless lacking in the smartness department. The Diplomat might be the best bet to get some summer entertainment without losing a few precious brain cells.