Is there a hit from the past decade more widely imitated than “Homeland”? Perhaps that’s because the spy serial’s action-packed appeal seems easily replicable, even without a character as indelible as Carrie Mathison. Building relatable characters is hard, but ratcheting up tension is easy. Right?
Epix’s new series “Deep State” creates tense situations that don’t quite hit home — because, artfully directed and grimace-inducingly violent as those situations may be, they’re happening to people from whom we feel a strange remove. On “Deep State,” Mark Strong’s Max Easton is called back into the field as an MI6 agent to course-correct a failing mission in the Middle East. In so doing, he’s called away from his bucolic family life in France — including a wife who knows less than she might and who takes it upon herself to learn what her husband’s been up to. Other players in the game include a moral dead zone of a spy chief (Alistair Petrie) and an unfortunate chap, Easton’s estranged son (Joe Dempsie), who’s forced on the run, his adventures in parallel to Easton’s own.
The series was produced by Fox for European and African markets, and its desire to move from territory to territory may have sanded away idiosyncrasy as well as Easton sanded down a piece of furniture in his introductory scene (the only time we get a real sense of his interests in the show’s early going). Strong’s inherent blankness as an actor — his stoic competence and his ability to carry across an unspecific sense of darkness — serves the story as written, here; we watch him torture a man by pulling out his fingernails and find little in his expression but bland momentum. For someone whose past haunts the story, his depths are certainly well-hidden. And that unreflectiveness comes at the expense of what might have been an action series whose thrills come with, and are nourished by, our knowledge of their psychic toll.
“Deep State,” by contrast, lards its story up with new faces, names, and conspiratorial connections without ever giving us a glimpse at the man at its center. The action is great fun and the show looks good, but there’s little to grab onto even as one knows the show ought to be getting incrementally more “tense.” Surely even in the high-pressure world of espionage, there’s time to make us care about the spooks for more than just their abilities and their adventures.
TV Review: “Deep State”
Drama series (eight episodes, three watched for review): Epix, Sunday, June 17, 9 p.m. E.T.
Credits: Executive Producers: Hilary Bevan Jones, Alan Greenspan, Simon Maxwell, Matthew Parkhill, Helen Flint. Producers: Tom Nash, Khadija Alami
Cast: Mark Strong, Joe Dempsie, Karima McAdams, Lyne Renée, Anastasia Griffith, Alistair Petrie, Khalid Laith, Mark Holden, Donald Sage Mackay, Rachel Shelley, Kingsley Ben Adir.