Career diplomat Kate Wyler (Keri Russell) lands a high-profile job she isn’t suited for. Kate will have to diffuse international crises, forge strategic alliances in London, and adjust to her new place in the spotlight — all while trying to survive her marriage to fellow career diplomat and political star Hal Wyler (Rufus Sewell).
The Diplomat depicts their everyday work, taking care of British citizens who run into trouble, while also harbouring an exciting mystery beyond the Consulate. There is a crime or an incident in each episode, and then an overarching, more traditional crime drama, a whodunnit/spy thriller arc on an epic, international scale.
The concept is quite handy given the vast scope of themes and issues. It’s everything from lost passports to missing children to revenge-porn cases and blackmail. As opposed to edge-of-the-seat investigations that are along the lines of sensationalism, The Diplomat takes a different tone. Do not mistake the series for a police procedural, though. Obviously, in a police drama, the central characters are warm to their victims, people who have been through tragedy or anything – but with the Consulate, it’s more about caretaking and looking after a person who is really adrift.
It’s scary to be in a place you don’t know and where you don’t speak the language, so the Consulate acts as a port in the storm. This setup allows our characters like Laura, Alba, and Carl to really take care of people, and you get a bit more invested in the human story behind each character that pops up as a result. It’s not just solving a case or ticking some boxes, you really feel the responsibility.
But somewhere, the idea to go with these dual identities meddles with the show’s central identity. The series is caught in the middle of being a character study and an observational cinematic realization of Consular work in Barcelona.
The storytelling is too vanilla and too linear. It never really kicks into top gear to elevate tension and bring you to the edge of your seat. The subplots in every episode involving the British citizens in Barcelona are a decent optionality that the makers use to extract the full extent of their story. These unfortunate crimes introduce us to a spectrum of people and their everyday struggles.
This expands The Diplomat’s thematic fabric, although does not add anything substantially material to the main plot line or the characters. And due to that, the suspicion that these subplots are more distracting than accretive arises.
The event that really ignites the secrets in the story is the one that actually, in hindsight, makes its central protagonist less likeable. Laura and Fabian end up in an affair, which is a bad creative choice. It antagonizes Laura’s character and diminishes her in the viewer’s eyes. There’s no good reason why she decided to sleep with Fabian in the first place!
Beneath those narrative frailties, The Diplomat’s writing is quite flavorful. Someone from England would be better positioned to absorb its full intention but even for a non-English listener, there are umpteen interesting references and local touches. The writers characterize Alba very well, although Carl never graduates from a stereotypical gay sidekick, which is disappointing. He does have his moment in episode 5 with Amanda Watkins but that is not enough.
One thing that’s really annoying about The Diplomat though comes from the lack of attention given to the underlying conspiracy growing between Sam and Mariona. The series does a poor job of translating that tangent in the storytelling and clearly establishing it for the viewer. It is not until episode 4 that you first hear about the supposed Irish target for Mariona and Sam.
The narrative is so neatly compartmentalized that neither Sam’s nor Laura’s secrets ever cross paths. Even Fabian and Mariona’s scheming to suppress the material evidence in Jay Sutherland’s case is not caught out. Only Colin’s proactiveness and desperation for answers yield some tangible results.
The Diplomat, as a result, suffers from poor plotting. And it is not just the storytelling that is not confrontational: the visual grammar too is lacklustre. Directors Jill Robertson and Jenny Paddon choose not to use pressing close-ups or other intrusive camera techniques to accentuate exposition. There is a facetious theatrical quality to The Diplomat due to this creative choice, even though the cast is well capable of translating those nuances on the screen. Overall, the makers have the right mindset to explore a new kind of challenge but just could not execute it as creatively.