If quality were measured in good intentions, “Q-Force” might be the show of the year.
Netflix’s new animated series sets out to tell a James Bond-style espionage tale about a gay man, Steve Maryweather (Sean Hayes), who’s been marginalized from a fictionalized version of the CIA — here called the AIA — due to his sexuality. After years of isolation in the West Hollywood station thanks to a homophobic agency chief (Gary Cole), Steve gets vouched for by a mentor (Laurie Metcalf) and ends up taking his group of queer spies around the world. He fights both to protect the planet from evildoers and to make room in the tradecraft complex for queer people.
The show, created by prolific TV writer Gabe Liedman, toggles back and forth between heightened and grounded sensibilities. It attempts both to dazzle with self-consciously over-the-top spyjinks and to comment on the power of queer communities. This is a balance that collapses, not least because Steve doesn’t hold the center of the show. More an ideal than a character, Steve — whose most distinguishing characteristic may be his body, and the protein intake required to maintain it — lacks the sort of grit that would make his quest to become the best spy possible really land.
This show is meant to evoke Bond, and seems to be borrowing from his fundamental unknowability. But while Bond can be more an archetype of a midcentury ideal man than a rounded human, part of the potency of the idea behind “Q-Force” is that in borrowing straight archetypes, queer creators might improve upon them. Viewers who are already dubious of this show’s fight for gay rights hinging on letting gay people serve the objectives of the (fake) CIA will find little in the character of Steve to keep them watching.
It’s a surprising choice to center a character with little distinctive about him beyond his appearance, and speaks to a fundamental lack of specificity that hurts “Q-Force.” The show’s storyline, drawing on elements of global conspiracy and mind control, blossoms into something wild and proudly offbeat, but there is no strong central character to keep us anchored. And Steve’s rivalry with his straight supervisor Rick Buck (David Harbour) comes to feel flaccid, as Buck ends up almost shockingly clueless to avoid overshadowing a protagonist without qualities. “Q-Force’s” hopscotching around the planet comes at times to feel like a forced march, even as the settings — a fictionalized Eurovision contest, a gay enclave in Palm Springs — are well-chosen and cleverly drawn.
The show’s supporting characters fare somewhat better than does Steve; at its best, the show uses them to playfully tease out elements of LGBTQ culture. Wanda Sykes is predictably excellent as a superstar mechanic who really just wants to be at home with her wife. Patti Harrison’s hacker character adds a pleasantly low-key undercurrent of aggrieved competence. And Matt Rogers’ drag-queen character Twink (whose name is among the show’s single entendres) adds welcome vim and gusto that’s absent in Steve.
These performances are strong, even as these are supporting characters who each riff elegantly off a single note. What’s missing is an organizing force that could bring them all together. For a show that hinges substantially on repartee, characters’ interactions tend to lack the crispness that truly well-directed animation can achieve. Often, the performers seem to be speaking disconnected (at times quite witty, elsewhere somewhat rote) one-liners into a vacuum. A series trading both on the legacy of the spy caper and on the contemporary queer sensibility ought to have treated getting the banter right as something close to job one.
While “Q-Force’s” attempt to renovate its genre is admirable, a hypothetical next season would do well to focus on getting the fundamentals of character and tone nailed down. That’s a mission that, given what strengths are already in evidence on a flawed but promising series, ought to be entirely possible.
“Q-Force” premieres Sept. 2 on Netflix.