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Since it was announced several years back, I’ve found Amazon’s Citadel to be conceptually interesting.
In a television marketplace in which international territories are more important than ever and the landscape is glutted with IP-driven franchise plays, the idea of pre-franchising an original idea and instantly building brand fungibility with different foreign spinoffs is enticing, albeit meaninglessly jargon-filled.
Cast: Richard Madden, Priyanka Chopra Jonas, Stanley Tucci, Lesley Manville
Creators: Josh Appelbaum & Bryan Oh and David Weil
Of course, it’s easy to get conceptually interested in something when you don’t know the actual concept — and having seen half of what ended up being a six-episode first season for Citadel, I will say that sustained interest is harder to come by.
If you’ve followed industry reporting and scuttlebutt related to a burgeoning budget, showrunner changes and extensive reshoots, you might expect Citadel to be some sort of disaster, all mismatched pieces and jagged narrative edges. It isn’t. Instead, whatever its initial ambition happened to be, Citadel is just innocuously basic. Fans of stars Priyanka Chopra Jonas and Richard Madden will at least get some desired eye candy, but more generally curious viewers will struggle.
For all of its globally expansive, forward-looking aspirations, Citadel had me mostly looking backward and thinking of the sci-fi and spy shows that covered the same ground previously. I’m not saying most of them did it better or worse, just that finding something original in Citadel, or anything original to say about Citadel, is nigh on impossible.
The first three episodes peak within the opening 10 minutes, with a rousing introductory scene set on a fast-moving train zipping through the Italian Alps. Secret agents Mason Kane (Madden) and Nadia Sinh (Chopra Jonas) are on a generic mission to stop some guy with a bag full of enriched uranium. They work, we quickly learn, for an organization called Citadel, liaising with tech genius Bernard Orlick (Stanley Tucci) off in a command center somewhere. Their adversaries? A nefarious assemblage of oligarchs calling themselves “Manticore.”
Mason and Nadia bicker and banter in an assortment of languages before everything goes pear-shaped in a series of fights and double-crosses culminating in disaster, with Mason and Nadia left for dead.
Mason and Nadia are not dead. If they were, Citadel would be an even briefer show, and each of the three episodes sent to critics comes in at under 40 minutes.
Eight years later, Mason has a wife (Ashleigh Cummings) and daughter (Caoilinn Springall) and no memories at all of his life before. But the world needs Mason Kane now more than ever, as Manticore has orchestrated years of terrorist activities that made the rich richer and the poor more terrified. Only Citadel can set things right, except that there’s no more Citadel. Oh, and where is Nadia in all of this? Stay tuned!
There’s something fun about the idea of an amnesiac spy, the need to reconcile the person you are now — inevitably boring and domesticated, but probably happy — with the person you were and the things you did. You know how I know there’s something fun about it? I’ve seen and/or read Total Recall, The Bourne Identity and The Long Kiss Goodnight. Heck, I’ve seen and/or read American Ultra and The Rook.
Heck, series creators Josh Appelbaum, Bryan Oh and David Weil — among the several credits that reflect the show’s reconception/reshoots — are aware that they’re building a show on a foundation of unsteady tropes and archetypes.
“You can’t even remember to put the toilet seat down. Now you’re Jason Bourne?” asks Mason’s incredulous wife when she finds out about his secret past. This, incidentally, is a horrible line of dialogue. Leaving aside that “Men don’t put the toilet seat down” is a thoroughly hacky joke construction, it doesn’t tell us anything interesting about the gap between the man she thinks she married and the man he actually is. Jason Bourne might pee all over the floor for all we know. Mostly, it reflects how desperate the show is to make every line of dialogue into attempted banter.
Nobody in Citadel actually talks or has an individual voice. They either attempt to exchange witty quips or they unload long bursts of exposition.
Occasionally the witty quips aren’t bad, or at least they’re elevated by the actors in the roles. Tucci’s bemused readings of his clunky dialogue are reliably amusing, and there are scenes with Tucci and the great Lesley Manville, playing the British ambassador to the United States (and keeper of dark secrets), that work because you could have Stanley Tucci and Lesley Manville reciting ad copy about the McRib and they’d give that repartee watchable undertones.
The exposition is harder to sell, because all of the specific details in Citadel are, thus far, generally perfunctory, from the SPECTRE/Hydra-lite Manticore logo to the absurdly MacGuffin-y main plotline involving a long-lost secret briefcase containing the nuclear codes. Who’s designing the logo for a secret organization of oligarchs? And what sort of world-saving spy organization has nuclear technology and also nuclear codes that haven’t changed in eight years? It’s hard to respect Citadel if they keep their nuclear codes less secure than the system Disney+ uses for new episodes of Doogie Kamealoha, M.D.
I could easily excuse Citadel for not rising to the level of flirtatious spy banter and narrative alacrity of ABC’s generally forgotten Whiskey Cavalier if it at least exceeded Whiskey Cavalier in terms of spectacle. Surely the Russo brothers, the executive producers responsible for the show in a big-picture sense, can deliver spectacle? Honestly, not really.
Top-notch cinematographer Thomas Newton Sigel directed the first three episodes and shot some of them as well. While Citadel has a very handsome, glossy, exaggeratedly oversaturated look to it, it never looks big. International locations are teased with onscreen chyrons and overhead drone establishing shots, but without a hint of on-the-ground authenticity or production values. The action sequences are at their best when they’re in contained spaces — fights in bathrooms and restaurant kitchens and whatnot — but when the show aims for something grander, the results are too dominated by CG to give any impression that a hefty budget was used onscreen.
And even when you really do get something that’s theoretically impressive, my complaint circles back to how derivative the concepts are. A crucial ski chase from a mountainous lair has some scale and I’m betting the final effects will be better than what was sent to critics. But when the James Bond franchise has done at least a half-dozen versions of that exact scene — pick your favorite from between For Your Eyes Only and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service — all you’re achieving is forgettable homage.
Thus far, it feels like the first season of Citadel is going to be a glorified premise pilot and in order to see truly fun things happen in this world, we’ll have to check out later seasons and the international editions. There’s no reason, though, why there couldn’t be an entertaining spy series built around Madden and Chopra Jonas, who have at least a modicum of onscreen chemistry and are convincing enough in their chopped-to-bits fight scenes. The series treats Chopra Jonas a little too much like a doll to play dress-up with, though Nadia’s characterization could come in later episodes. For now, Madden has the main character arc and he’s adequately intense and sometimes funny in a way the insufficiently playful show needs.
That both leads and every supporting player in Citadel are upstaged by Tucci, withstanding his character’s nonstop not-so-wise wisecracking, and the expertly imperious Manville is half a product of that duo’s general excellence and half a product of the lack of available time for characterization.
Just add “build out the ensemble” to the list of things Citadel will have to get around to in future installments, along with “add anything fresh to the genre” and “ask its stars to be more than photogenic promotional vehicles.” So far, it isn’t good enough to stick with for pure entertainment or bad enough to require rubbernecking.
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