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Chicago Tribune
Chicago Tribune
Nina Metz

Nina Metz: Spies like us — from the self-serious ‘Jack Ryan’ to the darkly funny ‘The Recruit’ streaming has embraced the espionage drama

A cluster of espionage dramas premiered over the last few weeks and it’s a genre that works best when the ratio of “piecing things together” to “there will be blood” is weighted toward the brainier side of things. I’m fine with a soupcon of action and violence, so long as the main attraction is the thinking and squinting and figuring out where allegiances lie.

And that’s what you get in “Slow Horses,” the Apple TV+ adaptation of Mick Herron’s British spy novels. They have a distinctly wry John le Carre skepticism, reducing MI5 to little more than a bumbling viper’s nest, with a disheveled Gary Oldman as an aging, pit-stained spy whose instincts are still sharp as ever. There’s real humor to be found in the show’s serpentining stories. Season 2 dropped at the end of November, just a little more than six months after Season 1. That’s a fast turnaround, even for streaming. Two more seasons are on the way.

“The Recruit,” which bowed on Netflix last month, is something of an American equivalent in the way it similarly refuses to portray an intelligence service — in this case, the CIA — as an agency staffed by only the clear-eyed and morally uncompromised. Quite the opposite. And the series has its own brand of humor fueling a story that isn’t centered on overblown world-ending threats, but has compelling stakes all the same. A former Russian double agent (Laura Haddock) is languishing in a Phoenix prison. She wants out and she’s threatening to spill the names of American spies working in Europe if the CIA doesn’t pull some strings.

A young CIA attorney named Owen Hendricks is fresh out of law school and assigned to the case: Find out what she knows and if her threats are credible. Played by Noah Centineo (of Netflix’s “To All the Boys” YA franchise), Owen is gung-ho and eager to dive in, but he has no clue what he’s doing. He’s a lawyer, not a spy, and a brand new lawyer at that.

It also appears that he has no direct supervisor other than the CIA’s general counsel (a crisp and politically astute Vondie Curtis-Hall), who has left him to fend for himself. So Owen is scrambling and learning on the job — relying on his wits and a taste for risk — while his more seasoned colleagues are dreaming up ways to haze and undermine him.

Tonally, the show lies on the opposite end of the spectrum from the more grindingly self-serious U.K. series “Treason,” which also premiered last month on Netflix. Charlie Cox (MCU’s Daredevil) stars as the No. 2 at MI6 who is suddenly thrust into the top job when his boss is poisoned. It’s all part of a larger power grab and he’s the pawn du jour.

Also in the self-serious column: Amazon’s “Jack Ryan,” adapted from the Tom Clancy novels and now in its third season with John Krasinski in the title role, doing a lot of teeth gritting and evasive driving. Michael Bay is an executive producer on the show and that gives you a sense of things: It’s not a light touch. The great Wendell Pierce pops in often enough to give the series a droll moment or two and a sense of actual human texture beyond “intense!” But like so many of the Daniel Craig-era Bond films, it’s “the world hangs in the balance” rather than intricate stories of cunning and spycraft, of the intimate and the duplicitous.

In “Jack Ryan,” the macho stuff is a feature, not a bug. You’re never going to turn a Tom Clancy fan into a John le Carre fan, so this mostly comes down to personal taste. I’m always more interested in smaller set pieces that focus on procedure and ambiguity. Give me an intellectual mano-a-mano any day over the alternative.

By happenstance or otherwise, all four shows are focused — obsessed, really — with Russia. Make of that what you will.

I was surprised how much I liked “The Recruit.” The show’s creator is Alexi Hawley, who is an executive producer on ABC’s “The Rookie,” which is such rank copaganda that it paints Los Angeles as a sun-filled wasteland of automatic weapons. Not even the charms of star Nathan Fillion can make it watchable.

Somehow Hawley won me over with “The Recruit” and its innate cynicism about the system itself.

As an entity, the CIA is portrayed as a morass of blundering, stressed-out backstabbers who are less worried about people getting hurt than the reputational damage of an op going wrong. In these corridors of power, everything is transactional. Is there something you’re not telling me, a character asks? Not telling each other stuff is literally in our job description, comes the annoyed reply.

Hawley’s experience on network TV has served him well. Individually, each episode tells a story — Owen is pinballing from one misadventure to the next, barely keeping it together, and yet remarkably, keeping it together — that builds out to the larger story. But you never feel like there’s not enough story, which is always my main beef with so many streaming shows at the moment. This feels like a television series in really satisfying ways, especially in terms of the rhythms of each episode. Not once did I think: This should have been a movie instead.

The violence is realistically clumsy and Owen is legitimately unnerved by it, especially when he kills someone. That feels especially refreshing and human. My only real critique is that the show has no interest in paperwork, despite the fact that its lead character is a lawyer. I’m a big believer in “roll up your sleeves and order some takeout, we’re going to be here for a while” paperwork scenes.

I was talking with a friend recently who hadn’t seen the show and they asked, “Who’s in it?” You’ll recognize some of the actors (including “Superstore” alum Colton Dunn) but it’s not really a “who’s in it?” kind of show. It works because the writing is solid and with just enough flair to keep things better than average.

That said, Centineo is a fascinating choice for the lead.

His charisma, such that it is, doesn’t really jump off the screen so much as quietly offset his blandness. That’s not an insult. He’s fun company! But he’s almost the counter-choice for this sort of thing. He doesn’t have chiseled features. He’s fit but not ripped. He looks like any other 20-something working in an office who drinks beer and maybe goes to the gym a couple times a week. Let men have averagely attractive physiques again!

Centineo also has the right instincts when it comes to the show’s humor, playing Owen as part self-involved dingus, part semi-suave guy who in another lifetime was probably a very popular camp counselor. He is just this shy of glib.

Had Centineo’s career played out differently, he might have been just another generically handsome face on a network procedural. He’s had the good luck of landing a show that’s well written and he’s the kind of actor — like “The Lincoln Lawyer’s” Manuel Garcia-Rulfo — who can lead a show and get the job done in entertaining ways, even if he doesn’t have dazzling star quality. Or maybe it’s precisely because he doesn’t have that star quality that his performance works so well.

Owen may have a taste for intrigue and action, but he’s a creature of the office: A lawyer.


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