‘The Recruit’ Review: Noah Centineo’s Spy Series Is More Netflix Filler

featured image

It is possible, if you squint, to make out the darker, sharper show that Netflix’s CIA drama The Recruit could have been. Creator Alexi Hawley’s depiction of the agency is a thoroughly cynical one: In contrast to so many other spy fictions, no one’s out to save the world or even the country, and there’s little posturing about heroism or patriotism. The individuals working within it are largely impotent, venal or both, and the organization itself exists solely to ensure its own continued existence, ethics or legalities be damned.

Or, as seasoned CIA lawyer Janus (Kristian Bruun) puts it to newbie CIA lawyer Owen (Noah Centineo), our protagonist, in the premiere: “This place is an organization of con men, which makes us lawyers for cheats and liars who are actively trying to sabotage us.” The story that follows proves him right, time and time again.

The Recruit

The Bottom Line

Better to leave this case file unopened.

Airdate: Friday, Dec. 16 (Netflix)
Cast: Noah Centineo, Laura Haddock, Aarti Mann, Colton Dunn, Fivel Stewart, Daniel Quincy Annoh, Kristian Bruun, Vondie Curtis Hall, Byron Mann, Angel Parker, Kaylah Zander
Creator: Alexi Hawley

But whatever cutting satire or righteous anger The Recruit might have to offer is badly diluted over eight bloated hours — lost amid paper-thin characters, flimsy twists and a wishy-washy tone. What it turns out instead is a piece of content so forgettable, the CIA wouldn’t have to lift a finger to disappear it from public memory.

Initially, The Recruit appears to be a fish-out-of-water comedy. The first time we meet Owen, he’s singing Taylor Swift to himself during a pee break while on a life-or-death mission in Russia; the second time we see him, after the show rewinds two weeks, he’s slapping his knees to Nelly’s “Hot in Herre” while waiting to meet his big-shot boss (Vondie Curtis-Hall) during his second day on the job. In no time at all, the rookie’s gotten himself tangled up in a case involving a volatile off-the-books asset, Max Meladze (Laura Haddock), who’s threatened to reveal damning agency secrets — and all before he’s even figured out the office policies around booking plane tickets.

But The Recruit is not really a comedy at all, despite a smattering of halfhearted jokes. (“The eagle has landed,” a CIA suit says of Owen, to which his colleague scoffs: “The eagle? More like the idiot.” Zing!) Nor does it seem quite thrilling enough to qualify as a thriller, though Doug Liman, who directed the first two episodes, brings some of his Bourne shaky-cam style to its occasional fistfights and gunfights. It’s sort of meant to be a character study of Owen, I guess, except that The Recruit never seems able to make up its mind about who he’s supposed to be either.

The dialogue would seem to point one way: To hear his law school buddies tell it, he’s a thrill-seeking playboy whose savior complex covers a bruised heart and a selfish streak — sort of a younger, greener, Gen-Z Bond. (One episode makes the comparison explicit when Owen, dressed in a borrowed tuxedo, is offered a martini; he turns it down for a White Claw.) Centineo’s performance, on the other hand, reads as far too puppyish to sell the arrogance needed for that archetype. The show itself seems torn between laughing at Owen and admiring him, though many of his accomplishments don’t actually seem that impressive: At one point, his colleague is bowled over to see Owen, a lawyer, bring a rogue agent to heel by reminding him that he could get sued.

The weakness of Owen as a character might be forgivable in an ensemble piece, where other leads could take up the slack. But he’s the center of the universe in The Recruit. Owen’s coworkers seem obsessed with him, whether they’re flirting with him in the hallway or cooking up new ways to sabotage him in front of their boss. Likewise his non-CIA friends — in particular his ex-turned-roommate Hannah (Fivel Stewart), who announces, “I don’t want to be that girl who says she’s worried about you” before spending the rest of the season worrying about him so hard that her own friends and family start to worry about her.

Still, the world around Owen does yield some highlights. Haddock seems to be having great fun as Meladze, donning the half-smirk of a woman who knows she’s winning a game no one else is even aware they’re playing — and, later, the guarded pain of someone running from a past too painful to remember. The only aspect of her character she’s not able to sell is the supposedly simmering sexual tension with Owen, not least because the tough, cunning Meladze seems like she could eat this clueless 24-year-old alive.

Also entertaining is Bruun’s Janus. The Recruit‘s one truly funny runner involves the never-ending battle between Janus, frazzled but offering prudent legal counsel, and the special operation team, whom he describes as being like “if meth became sentient and was given weaponry.” So determined is spec ops to embark on exciting but definitely illegal missions that they’ll stoop to drugging him so he can’t advise them to stop — a hilarious but disturbing window into the thought process that’s gone into some of American intelligence’s shadiest projects. It’s in Janus that the show’s potential for black comedy comes through most clearly, and it’s too bad he’s mostly relegated to the background of Owen’s storyline.

Were I a paranoid government spy given to seeing nefarious ulterior motives everywhere, I might assume Netflix’s The Recruit was made as a favor or scheme of some sort. Certainly, the results don’t feel like the product of any cohesive vision or urgent artistic drive. But I’m no spy; I’m just a TV critic. From that perspective, the project starts to look like something even more dispiriting: just another bit of filler, from a streaming library already bursting at the seams with it.

Read More

Share on Google Plus
    Blogger Comment
    Facebook Comment


Post a Comment