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We’re at least a decade past the point at which seeing a so-called “movie star” deigning to grace the small screen could be conceived of as a novelty. Heck, we’re coming off a spring in which Harrison Ford was starring in multiple television shows at the same time.
Still, there’s an immediate pleasure that comes from witnessing former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger make a late arrival to the streaming landscape as the star of Netflix’s new action comedy FUBAR.
Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Monica Barbaro, Fortune Feimster, Travis Van Winkle, Milan Carter, Aparna Brielle, Jay Baruchel, Andy Buckley, Gabriel Luna
Creator: Nick Santora
Like his Planet Hollywood comrade Sylvester Stallone, currently getting to relive his Oscar and Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot salad days on the Paramount+ dime, Schwarzenegger is using his streaming platform as something of a time machine.
FUBAR is a throwback — if you told me that creator Nick Santora has had some version of this script in his drawer since 1995, I would believe you — to a moment at which Schwarzenegger’s name on the marquee was a guarantee of, at the very least, big, dumb fun.
As a series, FUBAR delivers on maybe 1.33 of those elements.
It isn’t big. At no point in the eight-episode first season did I so much as think, “Man, I can’t believe they got the budget to do that for TV.” There are fights and explosions and the pretense of international travel, but the majority of the series is people sitting in offices or airplane sets bickering.
It’s occasionally fun, though it’s much more frequently just “not boring,” which I confess I’ll gladly settle for. Even though the season’s overarching storyline is half generic espionage stuff and half a straight-up lift from True Lies, as straight-up lifts from True Lies go, FUBAR is a notch or two above CBS’ short-lived True Lies.
It’s definitely dumb. FUBAR is a show in which half the characters are certified geniuses — if you told me that Santora had repurposed a failed season five pitch for Scorpion here, I would believe you — and yet not a single piece of the narrative pushes forward without somebody doing something dramaturgically illogical to set it in motion. It’s a series of randomly introduced (and forgotten) character details, recycled punchlines, inadvertent creepiness and bizarre thematic choices.
Schwarzenegger plays Luke Brunner. To his family, he’s the mild-mannered owner of a fitness equipment store, whose tendency to miss important life events led to his divorce from Tally (Fabiana Udenio) — though his relationship with daughter Emma (Monica Barbaro) and generally forgotten son Oscar (Devon Bostick) remains intact.
But guess what? Luke is NOT a mild-mannered owner of a fitness equipment store! He’s a SPY! He’s part of a team of CIA operatives that includes guy-in-the-tech-van Barry (Milan Carter) — who Luke’s family thinks also works at the fitness store — and slightly more specialized agents Aldon (Travis Van Winkle, who takes his shirt off a lot) and Roo (Fortune Feimster, who probably rewrote half her dialogue, but should have written all of it). Shocking right?
But wait. There’s more. Some sort of international incident is brewing involving the leader (Gabriel Luna’s Boro) of a South American separatist organization with ties to Luke’s past, and it turns out that the CIA has an undercover agent in that leader’s camp. And the agent is… Emma! The acronym you’re looking for here is “OMG,” rather than “FUBAR.” Anyway, Luke and Emma have to learn to work together, while realizing that their entire father-daughter relationship has been a lie.
Maybe the premise is a shade more Mr. & Mrs. Smith than True Lies, but Arnold Schwarzenegger wasn’t in Mr. & Mrs. Smith. Either way, there is barely a second in FUBAR that won’t feel familiar, usually from better source material, but sometimes the stuff that doesn’t work feels familiar as well. If you’ve seen True Lies lately, it’s almost impossible to watch the scenes with Schwarzenegger, Jamie Lee Curtis and the late Bill Paxton without being grossed out. Somehow decades later, FUBAR wanders into almost the identical ickiness swamp via Luke’s evolving involvement with Emma and her sex life with nerdy fiancé Carter (a wasted Jay Baruchel) and the more aesthetically appropriate Aldon. Plus, one operation requires Emma to honey-trap a nerd who quite literally doesn’t have a single personality trait other than his enjoyment of spanking. The whole thing is unpleasant and not in a way that’s funny.
Very little in FUBAR is funny, which is what happens when you do a show that’s an action-comedy and it’s run by people whose specialty is action — not that the globe-trotting adventure or episodic missions have much scale or precision. Some of the floundering attempts at humor are merely tedious, like a runner in which Luke doesn’t understand what “cuckolding” is, while some feel like protracted set-ups for payoffs that never materialize. The scripts try way too hard to give characters quippy kiss-off lines and try even harder to shoehorn in references — some very direct and some sufficiently oblique that they may be coincidences — to Schwarzenegger’s body of work.
Mostly, though, every reference and bit of slang or vernacular just feels ancient, like when the characters are waiting for a Presidential Decision Directive to authorize torture and Roo “quips” “You down with PDD?” and Aldon replies, “Yeah, you know me.” I’d have been mortified enough by the exchange even if it wasn’t torture-based humor in what might be the most pro-torture episode of television I’ve ever seen, with dueling parallel threads of torture featuring Tom Arnold. In a show that’s mostly forgettable, that particular episode is excruciating. Honestly, any plotline that focuses exclusively on Luke and Emma’s non-spy family — a little girl who randomly has previously unmentioned cancer, Oliver’s app, Tally’s new relationship or her run-in with two guys who operate a rival sports equipment store — hurt a little.
The side of FUBAR that comes closest to working is the part where Emma and Luke have to attend therapy together overseen by Scott Thompson’s Dr. Louis Pfeffer. Those scenes — if you’re able to ignore how stupid it is for the CIA to entrust a globally sensitive mission to a team in which the two pivotal members are a bickering father and daughter — are where you can spot ideas at work and even, in one session featuring elaborate puppets, identify hints of something fresh. Sure, that “fresh” approach would be True Lies by way of The Sopranos, but I don’t think I’ve seen that before.
Those scenes, which continue long past the point at which the activity is plausible, succeed-ish in large part because — and let’s be briefly complimentary here — Schwarzenegger and Barbaro are good. He has matured into a grizzled and yet fully Schwarzenegger-ian version of septuagenarian masculinity — the show thinks the 75-year-old actor is 65 — in which both weary resignation and some amount of ass-kicking are believable. He’s much more convincing as an obtuse dad than when a particularly evil piece of screenwriting requires him to say “Galifianakis.” And carrying over some of her swagger from Top Gun: Maverick, Barbaro nails her character’s impatience and her versatility in the spy game, though she has equally negligible chemistry with both Baruchel and Van Winkle.
I think Feimster, guest star Adam Pally and Aparna Brielle, playing an NSA operative brought in to work with the team for no discernible reason, all made me laugh at least once, but probably not multiple times. More than anything, though, the show made me appreciate how hard action-comedy, especially the comedy part, is. These are gifted people flailing.
I can see where Schwarzenegger and his fans would have been attracted by that comforting similarity to many of his better offerings, and FUBAR is not, regardless of what the title might suggest, entirely f[udged] up beyond all recognition. It is, in fact, mediocre in all-too-recognizable ways.
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