It is a truth universally acknowledged that any fictional show about your profession will inevitably be more annoying than a show about a different profession. I know very little about being a lawyer or a firefighter or a police officer, and so I can watch procedurals about those shows and primarily care about them as entertainment.I know a great deal about being a professor or being a foreign policy professional. Even if these shows are entertaining, they will inevitably get many of the details wrong. I suspect that drives me crazy in the same way that Chicago Med exasperates doctors or Law & Order annoys cops and lawyers.
This is a long-winded way of saying that I was both intrigued and wary about two recent television debuts about my two different areas of expertise: the ivory tower and the foreign policy community. The first season of Lucky Hank premiered on AMC – a.k.a., the Bod Odenkirk Network. The first season of The Diplomat dropped on Netflix. I liked both shows, but one of them got a lot more of the details wrong.
Let’s start with The Diplomat, because it’s already prompted multiple takes from my tribe of foreign policy wonks. The Guardian’s Julian Borger quotes friend of the blog’s Jenna Ben-Yehuda saying, “I certainly don’t have a recollection from my own time at the state department of that many people being that attractive…. If everybody were so attractive, maybe recruitment would look different.” Politico’s Nahal Toosi and Rosa Prince note, “it veers from hyper-specific accuracy (‘Did you call the RSO?’) to genuinely ridiculous moments in ways that are keeping even the most jaded foreign policy practitioners coming back for more.” Foreign Policy’s Robbie Gramer’s satiric opening line: “The first thing you need to know about the U.S. State Department, if you ever want to work there, is that most of your job will be uncovering devious international conspiracies while surrounded by hot people who all personally know the president.” And Slate’s Fred Kaplan — who spent a day in the writing room no less — is very, very grumpy about the entire enterprise.
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I agree with all of this. The Diplomat has its charms. Keri Russell is always watchable. Rufus Sewell and David Gyasi, as the suave, handsome men in Russell’s life, are both great. Ali Ahn plays CIA station chief Eidra Park with the appropriate mix of world-weariness and curiosity. There’s a lot of soapy, wildly implausible international intrigue attached to the plot, which revolves around who triggered an explosion on a British aircraft carrier (though the ultimate denouement of that mystery was, to use a term of art, batshit insane).
One pleasant surprise was that the show got some of the details right. The exteriors of the U.S. Embassy in London and the ambassador’s residence look right. One character gives a talk at Chatham House – and it looks an awful lot like the real Chatham House. The show uses acronyms like DCM and RSO appropriately. And creator Debra Cahn has her characters get to say some surprisingly trenchant things to say about various British and American policy clusterfucks like Brexit and Iraq.
With all that said, it is impossible to watch this show unless one is prepared to acknowledge that the show’s central premises are laughably absurd. One idea is that Kate is being groomed for the vice presidency because – why, exactly? Is she supposed to then run for president? And the truth is, Kate would be horrible at this job. As played by Russell, this is a character who thrives at frontier diplomacy and despises everything else in her portfolio. At multiple points in the show she says that she hates pomp and circumstance, giving speeches, and other performative aspects of her job. Well, in that case the vice presidency is a perfect fit!
Furthermore, other characters are drawn in very contradictory ways. The notion that her husband would broker this for her without telling her is bananas. The former politico-turned-DCM is presented as a savvy kingmaker, and yet turns out to be the most naïve character on the show. As for the soapy romantic subplots, let’s just say that it’s unrealistic to posit that the U.S. ambassador would talk to the U.K. Foreign Secretary about a possible fling (it does not help that Russell and Gyasi do not have much chemistry together, especially compared to Russell and Sewell).
The Diplomat portrays a few subtleties of statecraft correctly; other than that it’s some unholy combination of Madam Secretary and Scandal. Which is to say, I recommend watching it but not to learn anything about the job of diplomacy.
Lucky Hank is a very different kettle of fish. Bob Odenkirk plays the titular character, a creative writing professor and English department chair who has written one novel and not much else. Beyond his writing frustrations, he is stuck in his own words at “Railton College, mediocrity’s capital,” teaching mediocre students in (at best) a mediocre manner. Over the course of the first season, he copes with multiple family issues and crises in the English department.
Of the two shows I found myself preferring the gentle satire of Lucky Hank more than the diplomatic hijinks of The Diplomat. No doubt, the stakes were smaller, but Lucky Hank felt far more lived-in. Odenkirk and the other actors playing academics nail the sense of weary exasperation that most professors feel when encountering bureaucratic imperatives beyond their control. The petty squabbles and careerism of the profs is note-perfect. The best performance, by far, is Mireille Enos, who plays Hank’s wife Lily as a bemused spouse with her own career frustrations and aspirations. Enos does more with her reaction shots than most actors do with their dialogue.
The best thing about Lucky Hank is that the show gets what animates most academics – believe it or not, it’s the work. One episode centers around a regional conference that Hank attends but finds unexciting. The show makes it clear, however, that Hank is the outlier; most of his colleagues are animated by their work and their exchanges with colleagues. At one point, Hank’s best friend scolds his nihilistic view of the academy, explaining that it’s perfectly fine to gently mock colleagues for their fashion fails — but not because they care about their research.
This keys into the weird thing about Lucky Hank; it’s a great show featuring a protagonist whom, over time, I began to loathe. The show makes it clear that Hank did not have the healthiest upbringing. Even with that acknowledgment, however, as the episodes piled up it was difficult to sympathize with someone so passive in the face of challenges.
The Diplomat has already been picked up for a second season, and I’ll probably watch it for all the soapy fun. I do hope Lucky Hank comes back, however. Shows that capture core truths about the academy are rare; this one captures enough to make me want to see at least one more Mireille Enos smile.
Of course, if you watch enough of these you will find yourself comparing the realism in each show as if you know something. We all do this, we just don’t admit it.
Great review of the diplomat. As a layman I found it both absurd and deeply watchable, a bit like how people interested in politics got really into House of Cards in seasons 1-2.
One way to keep the show from just going into oblivion IMO would be to have a sort of "villain of the season" type approach like with Justified, ie in season 2 wrap up the British stuff quick and go on to the next crazy event Kate et al have to tackle.
Realistic? Of course not. But this is basically a soap opera (like House of Cards was when it was good) and not taking itself too seriously is probably the key to being lasting fun television.
Ambassadors. Mitchell and Webb. Still the only series to grasp the art and the absurdity of diplomacy.