Look, you can’t blame the new streaming service Peacock for wanting to launch with at least one comedy featuring David Schwimmer playing a sociopathic narcissist. However, with NBC’s beloved sitcom Friends already committed to rival HBO Max, Peacock was forced to acquire the U.K.’s Sky One original Intelligence as the next best thing.
Intelligence is not “the next best thing” in that it’s comparable to Friends in terms of quality (it’s not). It’s just that unlike most of his former Must-See TV cohorts, Schwimmer has concentrated primarily on directing in recent years, restricting his acting credits to a Will & Grace guest arc, an Emmy-nominated FX performance that consisted of saying “Juice” repeatedly and the AMC drama Feed the Beast, which I’d wager even some TV critics couldn’t pick out of a lineup. Schwimmer, it must be said, tears into his Intelligence role without ever pandering for audience sympathy; he’s the reason to watch the series, though it’s probably an insufficient reason.
Schwimmer plays Jerry, an NSA agent transplanted to London under suspicious circumstances to serve as a liaison to the cybercrimes unit — “centre,” if you prefer the British idiom — of the Government Communications Headquarters. Jerry’s very American — very stereotypically American, that is — need to take control causes him to butt heads with cybercrimes head Christine (Sylvestra Le Touzel), who wonders how and why she came to be working with this interloper. Is Jerry’s new posting a promotion? A punishment? Does he have an ulterior motive?
You can be certain that additional complications will ensue with Jerry’s new co-workers, including instantly worshipful Joseph (Nick Mohammed, also the series’ creator), crazily loopy Mary (Jane Stanness) and former hacker Tuva (Gana Bayarsaikhan).
Intelligence is a pretty rudimentary entry in a subgenre that the British do spectacularly well: the restricted-location workplace sitcom driven by characters whose unrelenting eccentricities only slowly make way for likability. American entries in this genre, even the properly acclaimed remake of The Office, tend to rely on shorthand to make sure you know which of the characters you’re supposed to find affection for, rather than earning that embrace through relatable prickliness. Check out the clumsiness of early episodes of Netflix’s Space Force for an example of a recent American show aiming to tap into this unsentimental British mode with minimal success. And even those bumpy initial Space Force installments are funnier than Intelligence.
In the six-episode first season of Intelligence (all the half-hour episodes were written by Mohammed and directed by Matt Lipsey), only Schwimmer’s character gets enough development to feel anything close to recognizably human. He has the only dialogue that rises to the level of Iannucci-esque coarseness — Veep remains easily the best of the original American comedies in this mode, thanks to the Thick of It creator — and I won’t even attempt to deny the pleasures of Schwimmer spitting out lines like, “Listen. I get it. You didn’t choose to have some dashing American fuck-fox in your prissy British hen house.”
Indeed, almost all the laughs in this first season of the already renewed Intelligence stem from Jerry’s mix of alpha American bluster — or at least a British approximation of alpha American bluster — and the nebbish insecurity that marks the other side of Schwimmer’s strength as a performer. (Also: the boundless mirth that sitcoms apparently get from allowing him to pronounce “karate” strangely.)
By the end of these six episodes, you come away with some understanding of what makes Jerry tick, and in his scenes with Mohammed’s Joseph there are hints of a dynamic that could maybe mature into something funny and even something sweet and human. It’s not there yet.
It’s not there because none of the other supporting characters are funny, nor are the ways they’re introduced — generally relating to being sexually harassed by Jerry — promising avenues for future humor. Stanness gets a laugh or two without making Mary anything more than a collection of antisocial oddities. Le Touzel makes something out of flimsy material that left me suspecting that any time Mohammed came up with a good line for Christine, he then gave it to Jerry instead. I was especially disappointed for Bayarsaikhan, because the scarcity of Mongolian actors/characters on TV should allow Tuva to offer more than just inscrutable novelty to this ensemble.
One of the safest things about this genre is that the characters in the workplace are much more important than the “work.” You can laugh unceasingly at The Office without ever understanding even superficial details of the paper business. Even knowing that, I’m still going to say that it’s striking how little Intelligence has to say about national security or cybercrimes, how stale and lazy its punchlines about pushy and possessive Americans tend to be. The show’s smartest satire comes from the droll Noel Coward tune “There Are Bad Times Just Around the Corner,” which plays over the closing credits for each episode, complete with the glorious line, “It’s as clear as crystal/ From Bridlington to Bristol/ That we can’t save democracy and we don’t much care.”
By that standard, maybe Intelligence isn’t a show Peacock acquired as a David Schwimmer/Friends placebo. Maybe it’s designed to be watched as a comic companion piece to the streamer’s The Capture, a heavily flawed drama that still, if nothing else, has some perceptiveness when it comes to both the surveillance state of contemporary England and the implications of American intervention on British soil. Take the Intelligence crew as a directionless Rosencrantz and Guildenstern-esque offshoot of the paranoid crime-solving in The Capture and maybe it gains some substance to go with Schwimmer’s committed scenery chewing. And if that sounds like too much work to be worth it? It probably is.
Stars: David Schwimmer, Nick Mohammed, Sylvestra Le Touzel, Gana Bayarsaikhan, Jane Stanness
Created By: Nick Mohammed
Premieres Wednesday, July 15 on Peacock.