TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. In the new Netflix series "The Night Agent," Gabriel Basso plays a young FBI agent stuck in a dead-end job who suddenly finds himself in the middle of a huge conspiracy. Our critic at large, John Powers, says that its story is like a cross between a paranoid thriller from the '70s and a twisty TV show like "24."
JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: We all have certain kinds of stories we're suckers for. Me, I'm hooked on thrillers whose heroes get caught up in treacherous political shenanigans - you know, the attempted military coup in "Seven Days In May," the assassination corporation in the "Parallax View" or the many delirious intrigues that fueled "Homeland." Put a scenario like that in front of me, and even if it's badly done, I'll plow through the whole darn thing. Naturally, I leapt to watch "The Night Agent," a new Netflix show about a young FBI agent who stumbles on a conspiracy more Byzantine than he could ever have imagined. Adapted from Matthew Quirk's novel by series creator Shawn Ryan, who previously did "The Shield," among others, this bustling 10-parter gets better as it goes along. It's fun watching its hero weave through a landscape marked by betrayal, murder, kidnapping, terror attacks, hairpin twists, harebrained schemes and, of course, threats to the free world as we know it.
Gabriel Basso stars as FBI agent Peter Sutherland, whose career is in trouble. Not only was his dad a disgraced G-man, his son thinks unfairly, Peter just missed stopping a terrorist bombing in D.C., prompting online trolls to say he was actually involved. His career is saved by presidential aide Diane Farr, played by a surprisingly gray-haired Hong Chau. Farr puts him to work at the night action desk in the White House basement, where he monitors a hotline that never gets any calls.
Then, one night, the phone rings. Two agents are in danger. Before you can say "Three Days Of The Condor," Peter is awash in troublesome characters including nutso hitmen, slippery politicos, the vice president's alienated daughter, and the head of a private military group, whose very haircut seems sinister.
Inevitably, Peter finds a plucky love interest, computer whiz Rose Larkin, played by Luciane Buchanan. It was Rose who made that late-night call to the night action desk as assassins were murdering her secret agent aunt and uncle. Peter and Rose go on the run, seeking to unravel a conspiracy that has them in its crosshairs. Here Peter talks to presidential aide Farr, who thinks that Peter's FBI boss named Hawkins may be hiding something from them about the murder. She wants Peter to dig into what was happening with those murdered spies.
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GABRIEL BASSO: (As Peter Sutherland) OK, what do you want me to look for?
HONG CHAU: (As Diane Farr) A reason why they were targeted, any connections Hawkins isn't telling us about. Peter, look. You've been a good soldier, done everything I've asked in night action. I know you're capable of more. You want to do more? Now I'm asking for more. We're wading into very murky waters here. Are you ready to do whatever it takes to get to the bottom of this muck, to keep Rose Larkin safe?
BASSO: (As Peter Sutherland) Absolutely.
CHAU: (As Diane Farr) Good. The last 12 months, I've been training you for something. I wasn't sure what for. But now we know. It's this.
POWERS: Now, people have always believed in conspiracies. In America, we had the Red Scare of the '50s, the Kennedy assassination theories of the '60s, on up to today's theories about stolen elections and kids being trafficked out of pizza parlors. Conspiracies, real and delusional, make for juicy material. And with some imagination, you can do a lot with it. You can spoof it the way "The Manchurian Candidate" sent up anti-communist frenzy. You can tell the upbeat tale of reporters exposing the truth about Watergate in "All The President's Men." Or you can follow the lead of John le Carre, who used the spy novel to suggest that the British ruling elite has actually betrayed Britain.
Alas, like most so-called political thrillers - the recent Apple TV+ series "Liaison" is another example - "The Night Agent" never rises above formula. Although there are lots of scenes in the White House, where, of course, villainy lurks, the series has no interest in politics, left or right. In keeping with our conspiracy mad moment, it's shot through with a reflexive cynicism about those in power, and it tacitly promotes the idea that the world can only be saved by a few honest individuals prepared to disobey authority and do what needs to be done.
Then, again, nobody turns on a Netflix thriller for political analysis, much less wisdom. We want a familiar kind of excitement. And this "The Night Agent" does provide. Although its script could be wittier, the show is very well-acted. I got a kick out of the toxic relationship between the spineless Veep and the daughter who despises him. And there's real feeling in the bickering byplay between D.B. Woodside and Fola Evans-Akingbola as Secret Service agents with warring approaches to their work. As for our hero, I appreciated Basso's patriotic earnestness as Peter. It spoke to my inner Jack Ryan. And that was enough to keep me watching happily until the very end. But then, as I told you upfront, when it comes to political thrillers, I'm an easy mark.
GROSS: John Powers reviewed "The Night Agent," the new series streaming on Netflix. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like this week's interview with Ari Shapiro, a host of All Things Considered, who's written a new memoir, or actor Billy Crudup or journalist Matt Desmond, whose new book is about why there's so much poverty in America and how affluent Americans benefit from poverty in ways they should be aware of, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews. And if you want to learn more about how we put the show together and learn more about our producers and what they're paying attention to, subscribe to our free newsletter. You'll find the link on our website, freshair.npr.org.
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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. I am Terry Gross.
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