“You don’t seem like a man who would like a boring life,” a character tells Dominic Cooper’s Fielding Scott, a spy navigating the uncertain streets of divided Berlin circa 1961, in AMC+’s Spy City. It’s unclear how she’s making this judgment, since other than looking like a man who enjoys a well-tailored suit, Fielding Scott doesn’t lend himself to much of a read at all — even after the six-episode entirety of Spy City.
“I love boring. I long for boring,” Fielding replies.
In that case, Fielding Scott would quite enjoy Spy City, a monotonously twisty — or twistily monotonous? — assemblage of espionage clichés and paper-thin characters wafting through a potent historical backdrop.
Spy City actually begins in 1960 as Fielding attempts to make a seemingly simple document exchange in a Berlin restroom. Things go bad, the agent Fielding was supposed to meet attacks him and Fielding kills the agent, who happens to be British. Oops.
One year later, Fielding has been booted from MI6, and he might still face charges of some sort, but he gets recruited to help a friend from his otherwise never-even-mentioned childhood defect from East Berlin to the West. That, too, goes pear-shaped and soon Fielding is scurrying around Berlin trying to make connections between his two failed operations, only to quickly discover that in a city governed by an uneasy truce between global powers, everybody has at least one agenda — usually more.
It takes only a rudimentary awareness of the time period to understand why series creator William Boyd and series director Miguel Alexandre are constantly updating us on the investigation’s day-to-day progress through 1961, especially once various rats and snitches start whispering the date “August 13.” The countdown to the events — they rhyme with “The Schmerlin Schmall” — of that day impose some suspense onto the series, which is necessary given Fielding’s entirely perfunctory efforts to find a leak and get to the bottom of several deaths it’s nearly impossible to care about at all. Throughout the series, in fact, every conflict that’s vaguely interesting comes from the real-world dynamic and the shifting alliances and betrayals between French, British, American, Russian and German nationals; almost none comes from any of the story’s specific characters.
The series is a chess game of hastily arranged rendez-vous and partially disseminated secrets aimed to flush out shrouded confederacies and uneasy unions, all the while expecting audiences to invest in compacts made between characters with accents in the place of personalities. You might find that some of the withholding and obfuscating feel organic to what a real person might do in those circumstances; I mostly found that it felt forced by an outside storyteller attempting to prolong a flimsy mystery across a season climaxing in two episodes that alternate between abrupt acts of violence and characters exposition-alizing in hushed tones.
Much of the fuzziness in the writing would be dismissible if Spy City was consistently stylish and easy on the eyes. Some of the costumes have flair and there are one or two crumbling-halls-of-power settings that are eye-catching. Generally, though, the exterior scenes are nondescript, the handsome interiors are high-ceilinged but interchangeable and the show’s tendency to reintroduce East German and West German locations using repeated documentary establishing footage — and title chyrons each and every time — becomes tired fast. And even this could be forgiven if there were a single character in Spy City who was interesting.
From Agent Carter to his turn as Ian Fleming in a 2014 miniseries about the 007 creator, Cooper has amply proven his comfort with debonair period panache, but I don’t think Spy City has a clue whether or not Fielding Scott is good at his job or what kind of man he might be. If Fielding is the grandmaster pushing the chess pieces, he needs to exhibit intelligence and agency. If Fielding is a patsy, the show needs a gradually revealed master manipulator. After six episodes I can’t tell you if Fielding is smart or dumb, patriotic or cynical, romantic or aloof — and it isn’t because the show is giving steadily conflicting data. Cooper, an actor capable of being as dynamic as the material he’s given, has lots to do and lots to wear and nothing to play.
Leonie Benesch as Fielding’s German secretary and Seumas F. Sargent as a CIA agent with his personal life under wraps have the characters with actual motivations. They’re fine, and if I invested in the fate of any characters, it was them. Romane Portail, as Fielding’s French counterpart, has motivations, too, but they’re so badly written that I never bought the character for a second (even if she has a great haircut). The highest praise I have for anybody in the cast is that Johanna Wokalek’s Ulrike, an East German photographer, gives the impression of having the most exciting life in the story, so I got increasingly annoyed with how little of that life is shown.
To be clear, there’s actually nothing wrong with a spy thriller being “boring.” John le Carré and Graham Greene expertly mined the monotony inherent in the intelligence game. But any fan of those authors will want more character-based nuance scattered among the clandestine meetings, predictable double-crosses and Wikipedia-deep exploration of the Cold War. Or at least I sure did.
Cast: Dominic Cooper, Romane Portail, Leonie Benesch, Johanna Wokalek
Creator: William Boyd
Director: Miguel Alexandre
Episodes premiere Thursdays on AMC+.