Berlin Station, premium network EPIX's first foray into the world of scripted series, just ended it's first season. Sadly, the show contains little of what is new and instead blends older, familiar storylines into a single cohesive narrative. Or at least it tries to. If you mix FX's #TheAmericans with ABC's #Scandal and set it in the current political atmosphere, you end up with Berlin Station. Inspired by the Snowden leaks, the show revolves around the Berlin Station of the CIA and how it reacts when it is exposed by an unknown man named Thomas Shaw, the show's version of Edward Snowden. Over the course of ten episodes, we uncover much of the information the CIA agents have been hiding and how it affects their personal and professional lives, as they try to track down Shaw. On paper, the show seems workable enough, yet it has its flaws, some of which it never quite manages to overcome.
Is This Richard Armitage's Time To Shine?
Berlin Station has one of this year's best new casts. Lead Richard Armitage plays Daniel Miller, who after ten years of work as a CIA Analyst is brought back into the field. Richard Jenkins plays Steven Frost, the head of the CIA station, and True Blood's Michelle Forbes plays Valerie a subordinate of Frost’s. Rounding out the cast is Rhys Ifans (of The Amazing #Spiderman fame) , who plays CIA field agent Hector DeJean. Most of these actors have been under-appreciated in the past despite their solid performances in other TV shows and movies. Berlin Station could have been the perfect opportunity for them to gain the recognition they so rightly deserve. However the show's clunky plot somehow derails their effort and never manages to completely align the work of the cast with the story. For example, despite the show putting a strong focus on characterization, we never quite end up liking the cast very much. In fact, apart from Michelle Forbes's character Valerie Edwards - who's shown to be as compassionate as she is smart - no one else seems to have much character. Not to say that the show doesn't try. It builds up several ongoing storylines that manage to overlap all the agents personal lives. Yet despite this overture, we don't really know what the characters are like. Actually apart from Valerie, the most amiable character on the show was a female journalist that appeared only in the pilot.
The creator of the show Olen Steinhauer recently said that they're trying to make a more accurate version of #Homeland. Homeland -which seems to be the genesis of this spy series and probably what they included in their pitch when they sold the show to EPIX- and Berlin Station have much in common. Yet Homeland has done a remarkable job of making its characters seem relatable and human, despite their unorthodox jobs and lifestyle. Here, Berlin Station falters.
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Why Isn't Anyone Likable?
The characters do have flaws (always a plus point) but no personality, and more importantly, no redeeming quality. In an effort to make their characters multi dimensional, the show stops making them likable, and that is the series' biggest mistake. Why are we supposed to root for these guys if we don't even like them? And here lies the crux of the matter. Berlin Station is ambitious. Everything from its premise, its cast, script and cinematography (all those magnificent aerial shots) scream 'We are gunning for an Emmy, or at least recognition'. But while the show managed to find a very interesting topic to discuss, their approach was all wrong.
Berlin Station works best when secondary characters question if Shaw is even in the wrong or not. For some misguided reason the show runners seem to have forgotten that the Snowden issue was quite a sensitive one. Yes the American Government was in deep waters because of it, and thus their hate for Snowden appears to be on a visceral level. But not all Americans (hell, #MrRobot face-timed with Snowden during a Season 2 promotional event) were on the governments side, and many especially in the foreign media, consider him a hero rather than the villain Berlin Station paints him to be with such adherent parti pris.
Had the show approached this angle without being so laconic in nature or laissex-faire in general, the show would have made for a more compelling watch. Because in those rare moments when the show does stop trying to make Shaw the ideal mustache curling villain, it deliver's some strong scenes.
One in particular stands out where the lead character in a singular moment of self-reflection says, "What the hell, happened to our integrity? The only thing that seems to matter is we don't get caught" only for another character to mock him saying, "You're starting to sound like Thomas Shaw".
And yet rather than build on and explore this stimulating moral dilemma, the show wastes its time fruitlessly making a case against him without giving us any real reason to hate him. Indeed the one 'bad' notion that we have about him is instantly dispelled when an associate of Shaw states that 'that is not how Shaw runs things". For the past few years TV has been the medium for strong willed female characters (Revenge, The Americans, Mr.Robot) , colorful characters (Game of Thrones, Westworld, Orange Is The New Black) and truly menacing villains (Breaking Bad, Jessica Jones, The Walking Dead), leaving Hollywood's worn out simplistic approach to storytelling far behind. And thus in this age of multidimensional characters, and antiheroes, this particular err in storytelling only amps up the rest of the show's flaws, leaving the viewer much less invested as he should be. To their credit, the show addresses these issues in the last few episodes but by then it may have already lost many of the viewers who had tuned into to see what otherwise is a realistic spy drama.
Still, It Has The Makings Of A Hit
Not to say that the show doesn't have its moments. In fact, as harsh as my review may seem, I was thoroughly engrossed in the series. And my severity towards it, simply stems from the series misuse of an otherwise absorbing storyline. Because in those rare scenes, when Richard Armitage (even with his cringe-inducing American accent) is allowed to be anything other than tall, dark and brooding, he puts a good natured spin on his otherwise fundamentally banal character. Richard Jenkins too, makes the most of every scene he's given and had the show been successful in resolving its issues along the way, he most certainly would have made this show more recognizable. Rhys Ifans for his part, brings his most mesmerizing performance to date. And despite its shortcomings, the series has all the makings of a hit: good looking lead, robust cast, fresh (at least to the American viewers) locale, good script and a interesting, not to mention relevant concept. Berlin Station is also a standout in the sense that it has an unusually strong supporting cast. Shows that are based on other countries rarely take the time to hire good actors, but the series manages to make everyone from journalists to terrorists shine.
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Berlin Station has much to love - from its talented cast, to its intriguing plot. Yet it's the same plot that may let the viewer down based on its simplicity. Had the show been as good as it wanted to be from day one, the result would have been far more pleasurable, but it's uneven execution and single sided storytelling prove to be a big roadblock in its way. Nonetheless it's satisfying enough to binge watch, especially now when all major TV series are in the process of their mid-season breaks. If one is looking for a fresh, fast paced political-spy drama, then Berlin Station is the way to go. But for anyone who just wants to sink their teeth into an absorbing American spy thriller series, they should just stick with The Americans, or heck, just revisit the Bourne movies.
Check out the Trailer for EPIX's Berlin Station:
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