Spy dramas are a delicate balance of tactical thinking and explosive action, with the latter typically going down far less often than the former. Even more action-heavy espionage tales — your “Homelands,” your James Bonds — light a fuse with their lengthy scenes of stalking, talking and traditional spy-craft. Many also incorporate varying degrees of sensuality — your “Americans,” your “Night Managers” — as the mentally strenuous life of a spy can lead to physically exhausting nighttime excursions. The best of the genre usually links the two together: The thrill of the chase and satisfaction of success can be found on the streets and in the sheets.
“Berlin Station,” the first original drama series from EPIX, has too little thrills of any kind. There’s a lot of exposition very clearly pointed toward real-world politics in the opening hour, but the show’s commentary is largely muted by contradictory choices in later episodes. Through four hours of the 10-episode first season, only one need is truly clear: Richard Jenkins needs to have more sex.
Now, we know that sounds a little crazy. The actor whom many came to know first as the dead father on “Six Feet Under” hasn’t exactly become a sex symbol in between the HBO drama’s release and EPIX’s first original offering. But the stylish Emmy winner is not only the most charismatic actor on a series packed with bland performances — most fatally Richard Armitage, in the lead role — but he’s also playing the only character leading the fittingly complex, dangerous, living-on-the-edge life of a bonafide freakin’ spy!
Park of the problem is that Jenkins’ character — Steven Frost, the CIA’s station chief in Berlin — isn’t our main protagonist. It’s not even clear he’s a protagonist. The only clear “good guy” is Armitage’s Daniel Miller, a CIA officer who ends up in Berlin after discovering exclusive information on the agency’s top target: whistleblower Thomas Shaw. Bluntly compared to Edward Snowden (in case the parallel wasn’t obvious already), Shaw has been exposing secrets at a rapid pace and has his eye fixed on agents in the Berlin station. How is he getting his information? Who’s feeding it to him? What damaging personal and professional secrets could come out while the spies continue their manhunt?
All of this sounds like it would make for tense tales of spies hunting spies packed with juicy twists revealed at inopportune hours. Alas, the ineffective introduction of characters combined with a general lack of visceral energy drag down the show long enough for viewers to lose interest. Things pick up a bit later on, but it’s not enough to redeem the series.
… Even if Episode 3 does make a strong case for more Richard Jenkins. Shifting perspective to the station chief rather than his lackluster agents, we get an inside look at the inner turmoil wreaking havoc within Frost. Sure, there’s a blunt visual metaphor repeated throughout the episode to varying effect, but it’s just nice to see a little effort from a production team otherwise content to showcase its admittedly appealing Berlin-based locations. (Really, “Berlin Station” earns its name here.) More importantly, Frost gets “the third heat” blatantly absent in other characters. He’s on the outs at work, thanks to all these Thomas Shaw leaks. He’s got a problem at home that hasn’t yet surfaced. And he’s got a secret — a big one — that could change everything.
Did we mention Jenkins gets a nude scene? Well, you see him laying on his side with an (age appropriate) lady friend in what’s set up as a sensual post-coital cuddle. In just about any other show, that scene would’ve gone to the hot young couple, so “Berlin Station” deserves kudos for bucking this one expectation. It’s just a shame the series isn’t brave enough to do it more often — with anyone, but come on. It’s Richard Freakin’ Jenkins!
“Berlin Station” premieres Sunday, October 16 at 9 p.m. ET on EPIX. Watch the first episode online at EPIX.com.