The little-known premium cable channel is trying to become less obscure by using an old strategy: It’s cooking up original series it hopes will create the kind of buzz that will prompt viewers to seek out the network. The good news is, even in a marketplace flooded with content, that strategy may work, given the extraordinary caliber of the cast in its first drama, “Berlin Station.”
The show doesn’t reinvent the spy drama for the modern era, nor does it rise to the level of some of the most captivating secret-agent thrillers of recent years (e.g., “London Spy,” “Deutschland 83,” and “The Americans,” the last two of which flash back to the fraught Cold War of the ’80s). But “Berlin Station,” a contemporary serial set among CIA and German operatives in that European city, is a credible option for those who enjoy “Homeland,” and appreciate its character-driven moments enough to patiently ride out the inconsistencies of the Showtime drama’s most recent seasons.
Speaking of obscurity, at times, “Berlin Station” recalls the little-known but fondly remembered AMC drama “Rubicon,” which depicted the pressure-cooker environment that spies, intelligence bureaucrats, and analysts contend with on a daily basis, and the self-destructive tendencies and elaborate coping strategies they often develop as a result. “Berlin Station” is not quite as cerebral as “The Americans” or “Rubicon,” and it occasionally cuts corners in its rush to create narrative momentum, but the Epix series has an outstanding cast that takes its reasonably solid storytelling and raises it a few notches through sheer talent and charisma.
The action kicks off when well-regarded CIA analyst Daniel Miller (Richard Armitage) decides to become a field agent and is assigned to Berlin. It’s a turbulent time for agency employees in Europe, given that an Edward Snowden-like figure has been leaking some of the CIA’s juiciest secrets to the press, and a number of those revelations have caused problems for Berlin-based spies in particular. As was the case in the fifth season of “Homeland,” “Berlin Station” gets a great deal of mileage out of shooting in the city’s ragged neighborhoods and pulsing nightclubs, and the versatile Armitage, who supplies some of the coiled intensity he brought to “Hannibal,” looks at home in both.
The pilot for “Berlin Station” has a careening energy and is overly packed with convoluted set-up (at one point, several characters become agitated over the fate of a man named Gerald, and it’s not ideal that, among the thicket of rapidly introduced characters, Gerald hadn’t made much of an impression). But once the show gets beyond that bumpy first installment, it generally settles into a pleasing groove, one that often allows the stellar cast to do its captivating work.
Richard Jenkins plays Steven Frost, the head of the CIA station, and it’s fascinating to watch Frost work through several tricky situations, and along the way, ponder just how cutthroat he’s willing to be in pursuit of a promotion. The series skillfully depicts the ways in which friendships, affairs, and spycraft are impossible to untangle inside any intelligence service, and a scene from Frost’s personal life allows Jenkins to deliver one of the best monologues you’ll see this year. His performance is all the more impressive given that he’s playing a character who is often reactive and watchful, qualities that can be difficult to illuminate and sustain. But making Frost magnetic is easy for the intensely gifted Jenkins.
As Valerie Edwards, a steely subordinate of Frost’s, Michelle Forbes’ almost unparalleled ability to play characters who are intelligent, driven and quietly compassionate is used to good effect. Edwards is often at odds with another ambitious CIA employee, the brusque Robert Kirsch (Leland Orser), who often seems more worried about his career goals than America’s intelligence agenda. Then again, that doesn’t make Kirsch an exception among the CIA employees depicted in this drama, in which spies and spy agencies are shown as viciously competitive, and generally dismissive of the journalists and civilians who are distrustful of them.
But social and political commentary take a back seat in “Berlin Station,” which is much more concerned with the meat-and-potatoes of TV espionage: The 10-part drama is full of dead drops, grainy surveillance footage, illicit affairs, ratty apartments, and faltering relationships poisoned by secrets. Not being able to tell people what they do all day and what keeps them up at night are reasons these spies drink on the job — and off it.
The most reliable staple of spy fiction, of course, is the burnt-out, cynical operative who has seen far too much. Here, that type is personified by longtime CIA field agent Hector DeJean (Rhys Ifans). Hector is a dissolute rogue who feels as though he could have been plucked from one of Graham Greene’s best novels. It doesn’t diminish the strong work of the other actors to state that the real reason to seek out “Berlin Station” is to witness Ifans’ a spectacular performance.
Daniel and Hector are old friends, but it emerges that each man has good reason to be at least a little suspicious of the other. The strange pas de deux between them grows in importance over the course of the first four episodes, and as complications arise, the acerbic and charming Hector provides the program with an irresistible gravitational force.
The secret at the heart of the series is that Hector, a man who’s done many questionable and indefensible things, provides this murky world with the remnants of a moral compass. As much as he would rather let his conscience die, underneath his hard-partying exterior, he still cares about doing the right thing. Ifans brings such depth, barely contained anger and wounded yearning to the role that Hector quickly emerges one of the most memorable new characters of the year. Even if he’s utterly untrustworthy, he’s reliably captivating.