Case Study 28: Agent X–“Pilot”

Original Airdate: November 8th, 2015 on TNT

Based on how often I saw it in press accounts, it would seem that Agent X billed itself to the media as “National Treasure meets The Bourne Identity.” It nails the Treasure tone but drifts rather far afield of the Bourne approach, which makes a spy fantasy seem realistic and plausible. It’s almost as if those two things, while superficially similar, should not have been combined. Agent also bears the inauspicious distinction of being the first show covered on this blog which premiered, had its entire run and was cancelled during the course of Oryx & Cake Boss’ four month existence. Let’s kick it while it’s down!

Strengths

  • Action-oriented thrills. Admittedly, Agent does cram most of this into the cold open and then gets steadily worse as the hour progresses, but there’s derring-do, close combat in elevators, gunplay, rooftop brawls, suspenseful battles atop precarious scaffolding and so forth. It’s good that Agent can supply these things, because otherwise it would have no reason to exist and we’d be in Olsen Twins territory.

Weaknesses

  • Ludicrous. I’d like to believe that Agent was holding out for camp value, but it’s hard to have campy fun while also embracing a solemn duty to protect the innocent American public from all enemies, foreign and domestic. Agent quotes this section of the Constitution, as well it should—the plot hinges on a heretofore unknown secret clause in Article Two wherein the Vice President oversees a high-powered field agent fighting against whatever trolls lurk under the bridges of democracy this week. This very silly premise infects otherwise solid areas of the show as well. In the first half hour, people nearly have their necks broken by someone twisting their legs around them in two separate scenes. The second instance is thanks to legally distinct Black Widow Olga Petrovka (Olga Fonda, Real Steel.) You see, Olga is a former circus contortionist (sounds legit) and when the FBI captures and interrogates her, for some reason they don’t use leg irons—on the famed contortionist—and soon she’s flipping herself over and wrapping her legs around her interrogator. Straight out of the pages of Ludlum, I tells ya!
  • Sharon Stone. Agent introduces us to our first female Vice President. Natalie Maccabee (Stone, Basic Instinct) is an improvement on Sarah Palin but she’s a damn sight worse than Selina Meyer. She’s even worse than that grouchy Christian lady from Scandal. The problem here might be the material (I’m not sure anyone could make much hay of the direction to “have a dignified reaction to the discovery of a secret shrine to Democracy underneath the Vice President’s House”) but most of the looks that cross Stone’s face seem to suggest despair at the tattered remains of her career and not noble perseverance in the face of the FBI director’s daughter being—oh, I won’t even summarize this awful bullshit. Really, I should applaud Stone for not having some kind of personal crisis over her decision to co-produce this turd. I’d be truly surprised if at some point in 2015 she didn’t make a rueful remark about how she used to work with Scorsese.
  • Reactionary. Look, I realize that it was a near inevitability that an action/espionage thriller would presuppose a government that unquestioningly takes it upon itself to act as an exceptionalist policeman to the world, but that doesn’t mean I can’t be disappointed. You see, Olga’s boss is international supercriminal Carmen SandieNicolas Volker (Andrew Howard, Limitless.) Somehow, Volker is responsible for a nuclear accident in France, increased guerilla activity in Nigeria and the suicide of the Argentinian Prime Minister, all of which is America’s problem due to reasons. And how can America solve that problem? Only through extrajudicial means, of course! At least the eponymous Agent John Case (Jeff Hephner, Boss) refrains from torturing anyone, KEIFER.

Motivation: Knowledge, as Case is frantically trying to discover the location of the FBI director’s kidnapped daughter. Dammit TNT, you tricked me into plot summary.

Final Episode Judgment: 3/10. Agent X is perfect for the person in your life who has already watched every episode of 24 and also every action movie made in the last twenty years.

NEXT TIME: I cannot continue to ignore my duty to write about an endless stream of children’s superhero cartoons, so look forward to a review of the 1990s Iron Man animated series!

Case Study 28: Agent X–“Pilot”

Case Study 27: The Politician’s Husband–“Episode Two”

Original Airdate: May 2nd, 2013 on BBC Two

David Tennant has traded a helmet-esque ginger wig for cheesy blonde highlights as we go from talking about Gracepoint to The Politician’s Husband. It’s a three-episode miniseries and a spiritual successor to writer Paula Milne’s award-winning 1995 effort, The Politician’s Wife. Husband didn’t win as much acclaim, but it’s still well worth a watch. Why, you ask? Let me count the ways!

Strengths

  • Political sausage-making. This may just be an Oryx thing, but I’m an absolute sucker for anything that takes the lid off a seething hotbed of institutional backbiting. Big social organizations seem opaque and abstract to an outsider. What really goes on in schools, hospitals, churches and police stations? Entertainment that promises an authentic glimpse into the greasy guts of a social system tantalizes us with answers to these questions, and Husband is no slouch in this respect. When scandals, showdowns and speeches from the world of politics make the headlines in Husband, there’s layers of incident behind what comes out in the public eye, though most of it boils down to power struggles of one kind or another. Which leads me to…
  • Scheming. Nothing raises the dramatic stakes like a group of people secretly conspiring to undermine and usurp one another. No one’s trying to kill each other here, but the stakes are entire careers and the leadership of the UK. Husband has the action play out at home and in the office. Aiden Hoynes (Tennant) is the former Secretary of State for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, and after a failed attempt at a power grab, he sees his wife Freya (Emily Watson, Corpse Bride) get promoted to the Secretary of Work and Pensions position. Later in the series, the cliche “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” is invoked in an unrelated situation, and it’s meant to underscore the plot. But for Aiden it’s in reverse–first he tries to make Freya an accomplice to his schemes to get back at rival Bruce Babbish (Ed Stoppard, The Pianist) and then when she proves less than pliable he sets out to destroy her as well.
  • Aiden Hoynes. The series is strong on plot, but it’s truly a character study. It’s interesting to consider how Hoynes compares to Frank Underwood, Kevin Spacey’s monstrously amoral power-hungry politician in House of Cards. Both are willing to go to more or less any lengths to seize the reins of power, but Aiden seems much more human and real. Hoynes’ son Noah (Oscar Kennedy) has a serious case of Asperger’s and we get several glimpses of Hoynes’ sadness for his son’s travails and Hoynes’ compassionate management of Noah’s outbursts. He has a strong relationship with his father (Jack Shepherd, Wycliffe) and often turns to him for counsel and companionship. Despite his efforts to sabotage and undermine Freya, he genuinely loves her and when the Hoynes’ au pair Dita (Anamaria Marinca, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) makes a pass at Aiden he rejects her without batting an eye. He’s not a cartoon devil, unlike some other protagonists I could name.
  • Beautiful direction. There’s so many great shots in this show, and this is only buttressed by the very dramatic looking interiors and exteriors of buildings like the Palace of Westminster. The shots are elegantly and lovingly framed, but the direction remains unobtrusive and accessible. It’s a pleasure to watch.

Weaknesses

  • No political substance. Look, I get that part of the point of political dramas like this, Cards and The Thick of It is that politicians spend the bulk of their time and energy on strategies and plots and very little on actually thinking about policy solutions or their constituents. At one point, the show lampshades this by having the House of Commons Whip Marcus Brock (Roger Allam, Endeavour) point out to Babbish that “If we devoted the same amount of time and energy to solving unemployment or child poverty as we do our Westminster power games, we might have solved them by now.” This may be well observed, for all I know, but it’s narratively unsatisfying. There’s no stakes for the viewer in a race between Hoynes and Babbish for control of the Prime Minister’s office if both of them are essentially apolitical assholes who just want power. Every time the characters take a political stand, there’s always an ulterior motive and there’s never any deeply felt principles or beliefs behind their positions. I get that this is part of the point, but it’s still alienating and unsatisfying. Fans of The West Wing will have twigged to the fact that Milne is paying tribute to that show by naming her characters Hoynes and Babbish. While I’m by no means a West Wing superfan, at least the characters on that show were engaged with actual political issues.

Motivation: Again, it’s not shocking, but this show about fiendish politicians is driven entirely by their lust for power.

Final Episode Judgment: 9/10. I recommend the entire series, but the first two episodes are particularly strong. The third one’s not so bad, but it does bring the overall rating for the show itself down to 8/10, mostly due to a ludicrous plot development in the third act.

NEXT TIME: I review Agent X in an attempt to find a show that is the complete opposite of Husband in every way while still being a political drama!

 

Case Study 27: The Politician’s Husband–“Episode Two”