In watching Netflix spy drama The Recruit, it’s hard to resist comparisons to Archer. Especially when it comes to its boyish, devil-may-care, unsinkable protagonist Owen, who basically is Archer – but toned down, partly by not being tempered by unspecified years of experience, but mainly because the cartoonier parts have been worn off by the gentle abrasion of not actually being a cartoon.
Owen’s near-indomitable capability and appetite for taking more and more shit onto his plate has to strike a careful balance with the fact that he’s the new guy, the fish-out-of-water, and crucially the viewpoint character, the guy from whose perspective we are being plunged into the world of the security services. But strike this balance it does, possibly because his own gifts are never some secret technical knowledge (even though he’s a trained lawyer) but rather a simple smooth-talking gift of the blag, like Saul of Better Call fame, or some kind of trickster god.
The trick Archer quickly perfected was in having the jet-setting glamour of the spy life be marred by the all-too-human flaws of its actual spies, most of whom had screwed each other and all of whom had screwed each other over at some point or another. A simple childish squabble between two full-grown adults can be funny, but if they’re doing it in the middle of a hostage exchange or defusing a bomb, well, then you’ve struck a vein of pure Hitchcockian tension, the kind of thing that can just as easily summon up a laugh from sheer relief.
But in this regard, The Recruit actually strikes closer to the bone than Archer, not needing to go overboard on who’s banging who, or getting distracted by the works of Kenny Loggins. By nature, everyone at the CIA is incredibly secretive and has their own agenda, which inevitably leads to them being absolute pricks to one another. And any even mildly suspicious mind will be wondering on just how many levels they’re being rude at any given moment.
The Recruit’s finest moment as this goes has to be the department’s big board meeting, when all the team are round the table giving their boss an update, and every one of them has to explain themselves entirely in veiled euphemisms. Inevitably, Owen commits the classic blunder of saying things in plain English, and the rest of them cry foul to the point of actually fleeing the room.
Meanwhile, the sitcom staple of the two bumbling office-buddies are here not merely pranking the new guy, but trying to – well, not actually get him killed, but at the very least incapacitated. Why? Because they naturally assume that they need to get him before he gets them. Sometimes it’s still paranoia even when they really are out to get you.
The problem is, having identified and expertly deployed the inherently farcical nature of being a spy, The Recruit gradually forgets about this in its latter half, as – it seems – it becomes a bit too enamoured with the rough, tough, steel-hard nature of its complicated plot. And without the comedy to leaven it, its more emotional moments end up rather cloying, as Owen and his maybe-girlfriend drone on about their feelings and boundaries without a giggle in sight.
(The Recruit’s last great hurrah in comedy terms is to put a pin in one of these scenes when maybe-girlfriend shruggingly concedes that the next urgent bit of plot has turned up, her bit’s finished, and she has to let him run off and deal with it.)
Owen’s first trip into the field quickly saw him being mutilated by his own guys, the stakes were high and bloody from the beginning. Yes, he’ll be pretty traumatised when he actually has to shoot someone in climactic fashion, but there’s no reason for the wider narrative to surrender itself completely to this melodrama, not when Archer would have had someone else deadpan out the funny story of their first time.
This isn’t a complaint of ‘why isn’t it Archer again, do Archer again’. It’s not even to criticise The Recruit on the grounds that it’s moving away from what I personally like. It’s a matter of tonal whiplash.
Plenty of stories get darker and more serious as the stakes get higher, but that can’t really happen here, because the stakes began fairly high and can’t escalate too much further without it tipping over into fistfighting South American dictators and deactivating doomsday weapons with seven seconds left on the clock. They’d already found their Goldilocks zone of just-rightness, their happy medium, only to have to wrench themselves in a different direction and pretend it’s suddenly gotten real at the eleventh hour.
Admittedly The Recruit never, even at the beginning, made light of everything. A man having his fingernail pulled out was treated with the appropriate queasy gravity. It knew when it should and shouldn’t deploy its funny bone, and typically things got more serious out in the field (here we differ from Archer, where the office was practically parochial next to the knockabout lunacy of their field ops).
Likewise, most of your truly great teevee dramas – your Sopranos, Wires, and to a lesser extent Breakings Bad – while by no means comedy shows, did have their share of laughs now and again, even if for no other reason than to reflect the grand smorgasbord of life. Even when events were overall on a downer this didn’t necessarily mean that door was closed.
Perhaps this is all down to James Bond dragging the spy thriller as a genre down into self-parody long before Austin Powers ever started sniffing around its heels. Deconstruction, that knowing cynicism, only has so much of a shelf-life. Eventually it must either perish, or give way to reconstruction, and rediscovering what was so charming about this thing you’re deconstructing in the first place.
The Recruit, then is coming full circle back to where we began with Buchan and le Carre and, yes, Bond – not dropping ‘vodka martini, shaken not stirred’ as a catchphrase, but certainly having its characters thirstily put it away in situations when even a stone might declare ‘I need a drink’. It’s just a shame that, having walked a comedic tightrope so well, it then simply threw up its hands and dived off the side.
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