4.5 out of 5 stars

The Diplomat is one of the best exercises in intrigue and suspense I’ve seen since FX’s spy drama The Americans (2013-18). The eight-part first season takes place against the backdrop of international diplomacy, a canvas that underpins a fish-out-of-water story that’s not entirely realistic or always credible. However, the series charges ahead to create a gripping, infectious, and energetic blend of suspense, comedy, and drama that’ll absorb even the most flinty-eyed foreign policy buff.

US Ambassador Kate Wyler (The Americans’ Keri Russell) has spent decades at the world’s toughest outposts, such as the Middle East and Afghanistan. She’s fervently dedicated to her mission of showing America’s better face, often at great risk to life, limb, and soul. Kate’s a beacon of moral pragmatism, excellent at her job, and greatly respected by her colleagues, her government, and the nations where she serves.  But respected is one thing. Loved is something else.

Like many idealists who’ve found a path to the corridors of power, Kate’s tough-mindedness makes her impatient, brittle, and fashion-challenged. (“The only long black dress I own is a burqa,” she snarls.) Along with some BO issues, her elbows are as sharp as ginseng knives. She refuses to stand on any kind of ceremony, even to make a speech. Behind the scenes, she’s a genius; in front of everyone, on the world’s stage, maybe not so much.

The Diplomat begins with a mysterious missile attack on a British aircraft carrier patrolling the Persian Gulf that kills dozens of sailors. As the blast’s echoes fade and the smoke clears, we meet Kate packing to return to her post in Kabul to continue her mission of rescuing Afghan women from the Taliban. But before she can close her suitcase, she’s called to the White House where she’s offered just about the biggest plum a foreign policy professional can hope for: the US Ambassadorship to Great Britain and the Court of St James, a position that involves doing nothing but standing on ceremony. It’s a cushy job for political appointees: no real diplomacy, no real adventure, no high stakes, just an endless round of ribbon cuttings, tea parties, and reception lines as the US President’s sock puppet.

Kate can think of no more dismal fate than topping her honourable career by drinking tea with her pinky in the air. But thanks to numerous hidden hands at work, the offer becomes one she can’t refuse. The big hand belongs to US President William Rayburn (Michael McKean), a Biden-esque figure on the hunt for a new vice-presidential running mate for next year’s election. For dubious reasons, he figures Kate’s brusque common sense might make her vice-presidential material and corrals her into accepting the appointment as a tryout on a more public stage before officially offering her the veep slot.

But the strongest hand, the hidden one, belongs to Kate’s husband, former ambassador Hal Wyler (Rufus Sewell); a towering but controversial legend with a long string of successes and at least one horrendous failure. As the show opens, he’s been out of the arena for too long and is desperate to get back in the big time, even if it means starting as “wife” to his spouse, the new ambassador.

But Kate wants Hal nowhere near her. Hal sucks the air out of every room he walks through: devastatingly handsome, charming, affable, and manipulative (as ambitious people often must be), he upstages Kate even when he’s not around. Fed up, Kate is determined to divorce him so she can get on with her career on her own terms, a world beyond “Mrs Hal Wyler.”

Unfortunately, Kate’s appointment derails her divorce plans. Even in the face of fierce opposition to her appointment from the US Secretary of State Ganon (Miguel Sandoval), Hal cheerfully tells her, “You can’t fire Cinderella.” Nor can Cinderella divorce Prince Charming… especially since this tendentious couple are still deeply in love.

Lucky for Kate, once she arrives at the US Embassy in London (a ghastly metallic abstraction that made me want to reconsider the UK-US “special relationship”), she’s plunged into the midst of what she loves most: a crisis, this one arising from the mysterious terror attack on the British aircraft carrier. 

The stakes are rising by the minute, thanks to UK Prime Minister Nicol Trowbridge (Rory Kinnear), a blustering bully who demands immediate retaliation, regardless of who gets hurt, even if it leads to full-blown war, irrespective of the opposition of most everyone around him.

Kate throws protocol and propriety aside as she sets out to keep the lid on this boiling pot with her well-bridled enthusiasm. Accompanied by a shifting circle of similar Type-A allies that include US Deputy Chief of Mission Stuart Hayford (Ato Essandoh), CIA station chief Eidra Park (Ali Ahn), and UK Foreign Secretary Austin Dennison (David Gyasi), and, of course, the profoundly unwanted Hal, she probes the labyrinthine mystery behind the attack while maneuvering, sometimes clumsily, to pull the world back from total war.

The Diplomat is a hair-raising and sometimes hilarious kick. Created by The West Wing and Homeland veteran writer Deborah Cahn, the show skips briskly along like a screwball comedy, ably keeping its numerous plot strands in hand, thanks to razor-sharp teams of writers, directors, editors, and a terrific, dedicated cast who perform great energy and poise. (Essandoh, as Kate’s bewildered deputy, is a particular standout). The dialogue snaps and crackles with verve and sophistication. Everyone is happy be part of this mission.

Like all fictional narratives with a real-life backdrop, The Diplomat takes its fair share of liberties with real-world diplomacy (as discussed here and elsewhere). The selection of Kate as a presidential running mate is more dreamy liberal pragmatism than a realistic choice. The revelation of who was behind the attack might also provoke a sneer. But even as my inner history and foreign policy buff scowled, I stuck with it all the way.

Finally, the highest praise must be bestowed on Russell and Sewell as Kate and Hal Wyler, two examples of perfect casting. Sewell has been doing great work since the 1990s, and here he’s given a role that fits him lock and key with powerhouse Keri Russell. 

Kate’s brusque determination and Hal’s devious bonhomie create a delightful comic and dramatic contrast. Both actors hit their marks with enthusiasm, playing off each other like tennis pros, scoring in every scene. You believe they belong together, even if Kate, especially, believes otherwise. Kate and Hal can take their place alongside Nick and Nora Charles as one of the great fictional power couples. I can’t wait for season 2.


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Cast & Crew

writers: Deborah Cahn, Peter Noah, Amanda Johnson-Zetterström, Mia Chung & Anna Hagen.
directors: Simon Cellan Jones, Andrew Bernstein, Liza Johnson & Alex Graves.
starring: Keri Russell, Rufus Sewell, David Gyasi, Ali Ahn, Rory Kinnear & Ato Essandoh.