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The Diplomat review | Simplistic, bland and digestible political drama

We’ve been blessed with some truly great political TV over the years. The Thick of It, The West Wing, State of Play and even last year’s divisive This England have all delved deep into the heart of the day to day running of nation states.

Even series which are nominally not about big P politics such as Succession and The Crown have helped lift the lid on the institutional underpinnings of the US and UK governmental systems.

Therefore, the prospect of a new political drama, giving an insight into the behind-the-scenes geopolitical manoeuvring done by ambassadors on both sides of the Atlantic, may seem like a tantalising prospect.

Well, temper those expectations here. The Diplomat is not an intricately researched exposé into the realities of bilateral diplomacy. In fact, it’s really not that interested in politics at all, beyond the most basic of assessments around populism and patriarchy.

The eight-part series follows Kate, a career diplomat who was supposed to be sent on assignment to Afghanistan, but instead is made ambassador to the UK. She’s brilliant, but hard-edged and cynical, and doesn’t do well at playing nice for the cameras or those at the top of the ladder.

Keri Russell as Kate Wyler in The Diplomat. Alex Bailey/Netflix

While in the job she has to defuse international crises and forge strategic alliances, while also trying to manage her husband Hal, a fellow diplomat and political star who has a tendency to go rogue and steal the limelight.

When it gets down to it, this series is truly about the soapy character relationships, particularly between the central duo. The geo-politics is all surface level – populist politicians acting on impulse while public servants do clean up, rogue states looking to poison Western discourse and a Prime Minister-President relationship most closely resembling that last seen in Love Actually.

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The plot isn’t particularly thrilling or complex, and it also never feels particularly high stakes, despite dealing with issues of national security which, we’re told, could lead to catastrophic, world war level outcomes. Everything somehow feels neutered because it’s all a bit too obvious.

This is likely in part because the writers are exploring two nations’ internal systems at once, and due to the nature of Netflix are catering to audiences all over the world. They therefore seem unwilling to delve deep into either country’s political system for fear of alienating viewers, leaving the central plot of this series feeling a bit bland and, at least from a UK perspective, inauthentic.

The brush strokes are as broad as they get, and despite hints towards the murky, moral grey of politics, everything almost always falls back into absurdly dichotomous moral absolutes – one course of action is wrong, the other right, one political actor is immoral, the other moral.

All that said, The Diplomat is still, for the most part, an entertaining watch, and it mostly has to do with the strong character work and the excellent central performances.

Keri Russell as Kate Wyler and Rufus Sewell as Hal Wyler in The Diplomat. Alex Bailey/Netflix

Keri Russell is terrific as Kate, allowing her to be a fully rounded, flawed and sometimes abrasive character yet making her eminently sympathetic and likeable. The series rests on Russell’s shoulders and the fact she makes Kate such a complex and engaging presence means its far easier to overlook narrative issues or plot cliches.

However, perhaps the series’s ace in the hole is Rufus Sewell as Hal, Kate’s husband and fellow diplomat. Throughout the run he remains such an unknowable, charismatic presence, who is at once charming and amiable, the next moment arrogant and aggravating.

The push and pull between the two central characters is the best thing about the series, as Hal bulldozes his way over Kate’s own ambitions and work-life simply through being his utterly insatiable self. It’s a relationship which is at turns dramatic, funny, complex and sad, and it’s when the series turns towards their marital squabbles that it really shines.

The series also features strong turns from the likes of David Gyasi, T’Nia Miller and Michael McKean, as well as Rory Kinnear as Prime Minister Nicol Trowbridge.

On paper it may not be the most memorable role of Kinnear’s career, or even the most memorable Prime Minister he’s played (ahem, Black Mirror), but he elevates the material at every turn and makes the smarmy, entitled character still believably popular.

Rory Kinnear as Nicol Trowbridge in The Diplomat. Alex Bailey/Netflix

Visually the series is glossy, if a little indistinct, but the choice to set episodes primarily at country houses rather than the halls of Westminster makes for a welcome change from similar series.

The Diplomat’s greatest weakness is that it feels as though it is grasping for ripped-from-the-headlines relevance, with numerous references to semi-recent real-world events, but instead ends up feeling a little bit lame and dated.

But once you accept the series for what it truly is, rather than for what it appears to be aspiring to, it’s actually a fun ride with engaging characters and an easily digestible plot.

This is an easy going binge watch through and through, which I have no doubt will scratch an itch for Netflix viewers, even if it’s not the one they first thought. If you’re looking for something of that ilk on a rainy April night in, you can do far worse.

The Diplomat will be available to watch on Netflix from Thursday 20th April 2023. Sign up for Netflix from £4.99 a month. Netflix is also available on Sky Glass and Virgin Media Stream.

Check out more of our Drama coverage or visit our TV Guide and Streaming Guide to see what’s on tonight.

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