Friday, June 15, 2018

TV REVIEW: Epix's 'Deep State'

Epix will premiere its new original drama series Deep State on Sunday, June 17 at 9/8c. The drama stars Mark Strong, Joe Dempsie, Karima McAdams, Lyne Renée, Anastasia Griffith and Alistair Petrie.

Read on for my thoughts on the espionage thriller after screening its first two episodes.

The new drama Deep State is an international production that was commissioned in England before being sold to other outlets throughout the world. There is such a great marketplace currently for international fare airing in the United States too. So many outlets want those co-production deals because they could actually be very lucrative to the companies. As such, there is opportunity for these shows from all around the world to be seen by Americans. There is that potential now. And yet, it all ultimately comes down on which U.S. outlet decides to pick up the rights. If an international show winds up on Netflix, the odds are great that it will be seen. Things have always turned out pretty well at PBS with its Masterpiece titles as well. Those are solid brands that have established themselves as the beneficiaries and destinations for these types of shows. They aren't the only ones. Amazon, Hulu, AMC, BBC America and countless others also have shows that originated overseas before coming over here. This just happens to be the first time that Epix has cut a deal to show content like this. As such, it could become a part of its programming model moving forward. Right now, Epix's identity is mostly as a wannabe HBO. That's not an inherently bad aspiration either. HBO is a great service. Showtime and Starz do fairly well for themselves as well. Yes, streaming is the future and that's where everyone is investing right now in order to stay competitive. But there is also value in a premium cable channel that makes its money off of subscription numbers and being able to deliver content without advertising. Epix is currently ramping up its production efforts as well. Deep State was a quick turnaround from the announcement that it was picked up to it premiering on Epix. The show was already airing in England when the Epix deal closed. As such, it gives Epix an interesting new show to air during the first months of the summer to help make it a destination people should want to invest in. It's still in the midst of a reinvention itself with a new CEO and a new ownership structure. But it's clear that Epix is in the original scripted programming space right now. One has to commend the service for doing so and actually creating products that are entertaining to watch.

Of course, there is nothing inherently original about the story onscreen in Deep State. It's the same formula that audiences have seen constant times that was popularized mostly by shows like 24 and Homeland. And yet, there is going to be an audience for that. There is a reason why those have been copied so many times. They represent a formula that works and is incredibly entertaining to a certain audience because of the tension and action stakes. Of course, not every version of this spy craft thriller is executed that well. It's a formula copied without always knowing how to tell the most captivating stories. 24 and Homeland were the successes they are because of the characters at the center of the story. Yes, they were gorgeous to look at and tackled stories that were very topical with what was going on in the world. But the audience fundamentally cared about the characters at the center of it all. That is the most important thing in this particular genre. Epix already has one show in this vein as well. Berlin Station is also a tense spy thriller telling stories about the surveillance state and espionage in the modern age. In fact, Deep State would probably pair very well with Berlin Station for Epix. At least, it establishes a brand for the channel that could be quite indicative of what type of shows one can find on the service. Of course, I also stopped watching Berlin Station early on its first season simply because I got busy and didn't feel the need to get caught up on it. And now, I can say that I will probably stick with Deep State throughout its eight episode first season because the first two episodes are really fascinating and interesting.

The story centers around Max Easton (Mark Strong), a former MI6 field agent who has been out of the spy game for the past ten years. But just when he thought he was out for good, he is reluctantly pulled back into this work by the chief who won't take no for an answer. Max has escaped to an idyllic life in France and built a new family for himself. Sure, that he means he left the family he had in England behind in order to start over completely. These episodes paint a complex portrait of who this man was. He is idolized by so many people. And yet, it doesn't seem like he has many personal connections because he was absent during so much of their lives as well. He has been there for his new French wife and daughters. But now, he finds himself called away on service and they are left completely in the dark about what is going on with him and the kind of work he is doing for his former government. The family aspect of the show is where the emotions truly come out. And yes, Strong does give a very commanding performance at the center of the series. But spending time with his wife in France is never all that compelling. There is a lot of it in the early going too even though the audience gets the sense that she's going to be involved in the espionage and secret-keeping aspects of the series as well. It's much more effective when Max is actually interacting with the ghosts of his past as he is trying to save the life of a person he hasn't had a genuinely relationship with in a long time.

Max is sent out to Beirut in order to clean up an operation that has seemingly gone awry. London lost a connection with the team of agents they sent down there to take out several targets. They believe they have gone AWOL and are now warning the people that they are on a kill list. As such, Max is sent there to get personal vengeance. Once there though, he finds himself confronted by the idea that he has possibly been lied to regarding his involvement in this story and mystery. This is a narrative that is filled with so many secrets and mysterious agendas. Nothing is spelled out in an easy way in the early going. In fact, there are moments where the show is just outright confusing because it is playing with multiple timelines that exist in such close proximity to one another. The show reveals more and more about what's actually going on the deeper Max explores the environment in Beirut. But he is only dealing with more questions as well. There are a couple of individuals involved that are shady and shouldn't be trusted at all because of their politics and what they are willing to do in this particular region. The show features some truly stunning direction in these opening hours. That's probably the most striking element of the series. Robert Connolly does a terrific job in setting the mood while also showing off the environment being inhabited by the characters. Similarly, Strong is surrounded by some solid supporting performances - especially from Joe Dempsie and Alistair Petrie. And the topical aspects of the main plot are extremely relevant and show just how corrupt the political system can be - especially if no one is watching it closely. Deep State features a bunch of solid ideas and elements that with enough development can become something great. Right now, it's just simply good enough to keep watching.