The espionage novels of John le Carré — including Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy — are not known for gun battles, gripping action sequences, or choreographed fist fights. Instead, they dwell in the smoke-filled rooms, back alleyways, and hallowed halls of international spy agencies. In those shadowed spaces, clandestine intelligence officers battle wits in a game of 3D chess, where the chess pieces are spies (traitors) and the chess masters are Russian, East German, British, and American intelligence officers.
Those are not the types of stories you will find in two new Netflix spy shows, The Recruit and Treason. While both deal in the world of international espionage, one tries and fails to follow (albeit, lightly) in the footsteps of le Carré, while the other diverges wildly from the old master and largely pulls it off.
An infestation of melodrama
Let us first begin with the failure. Treason earns a grade of “stinker” largely because it both takes itself too seriously and suffers from an unbelievable plot. There is nothing wrong with a far-fetched spy story but the Bourne movies, the Mission: Impossible franchise, and even The Recruit pull it off by avoiding self-seriousness and offering up lots of action within a fast-paced story. If you aim to produce a prestige intelligence thriller, however, you need to at least ground the plot in realism.
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Treason fails to do so. The plot revolves around a British MI6 officer (played by Daredevil star Charlie Cox) who rises to the top of the British spy service through a series of choreographed events. Those events are orchestrated by a wayward Russian intelligence officer who also has a romantic history with Cox’s character.
As you can see, we are already wading deep into fanciful waters infested with melodrama. Throw in a devious CIA officer (who herself has a conflicted relationship with a family member of Cox’s MI6 officer), a diabolical blackmail scheme, and a fairly predictable and underwhelming resolution, and it all just barely elicits a meh. This reviewer simply could not emotionally invest in the fantastical plot, nor in the human relationships underpinning it.
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Not taking yourself seriously helps
The Recruit, on the other hand, manages to entertain its viewers and keep them watching to see how things will play out. The show accomplishes this by boldly embracing a smartass take on the CIA thriller. In other words, it is far from a dour, slow-burning le Carré story (nor is it related to the 2003 Colin Farrell movie of the same name).
The show’s wit and charm are largely embodied by the main character, a newly-hired CIA lawyer played by Noah Centineo. The lawyer’s wry humor, cynicism, and comically bumbling involvement in fantastical CIA action sequences work because the show never tries to carry off the story without a wink, nod, and tongue firmly planted in cheek. It is almost as if Centineo’s character is in on the joke, constantly mumbling some version of “what have I gotten myself into” throughout.
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Don’t get me wrong. The plot of The Recruit is just as unbelievable as that of Treason but in contrast, The Recruit never grates on your nerves because it is carried off in such good humor. The writers are not expecting you to believe their story; they are simply asking you to be entertained. However, there is just enough true-to-life dialogue and insider CIA jargon to give away the fact that at least one writer on the show has experience in The Agency. One simply does not include the term “swirl” (polygraph), talk of encryption and digraphs, and references to “201 files” without having some substantial insider knowledge of the CIA.
Those espionage Easter Eggs combine with flashes of comedy, a healthy dose of action, an entertaining plot, and the delightful cynicism of almost every character to make for a fun ride. There are also enough jaded, amoral, and oddball characters to ensure the story never drags. A particular favorite of this author is CIA lawyer “Janus,” who suffers throughout every episode from extreme anxiety, paranoia, and insomnia from having to keep a wayward Special Operations Group (SOG) element from breaking every law in the federal code during the course of its operations. His acute suffering is a hoot.
A mixed bag of Netflix spy shows
Alas, you will not find a prestige espionage thriller between the two Netflix spy shows The Recruit and Treason. There is none of le Carré’s brooding authenticity to be found anywhere. However, The Recruit will keep you grinning, coming back for more, and most importantly, entertained. Unfortunately, I cannot say the same for Treason.
Feature Image: Noah Centineo in “The Recruit.” (Netflix)
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