No matter your opinion of Ross Geller, the actor behind him is an objectively deft comic performer. David Schwimmer only got better during his decade-long, career-making time on “Friends,” and that we haven’t seen him starring in a half-hour comedy since 2004 speaks more to the artist’s varying interests (drama acting, stage performance, and lots of directing) than anything else (be it a collective dislike of the character forever tied to his image or a personal disinterest in the genre).
Enter “Intelligence,” Schwimmer’s return to TV comedy via NBCUniversal’s new streaming service, Peacock. It’s not exactly an orchestrated comeback. The six-episode first season was originally made for the U.K.’s Sky One and already aired overseas in February, making it less Schwimmer’s version of “Cougar Town” or “Mr. Sunshine” — big ticket broadcast series billed as the star’s return to network sitcoms — than a smaller series befitting the actor’s ever-widening focus. For Schwimmer’s fans, “Intelligence” will suffice as a forgettable treat, filled with just enough clever moments to remind us of his strong timing and expressive visage, while lacking the substance needed to make it must-see TV. Approached from any other vantage point and it’s mainly a mess.
Things start off soundly enough. The U.K.’s Government Communications Headquarters, which handles both local and international cyber crimes, gets shaken up by the arrival of Jerry Bernstein (David Schwimmer), an NSA agent assigned to the department as an American liaison. Jerry’s headstrong, smarter-than-thou attitude soon clashes with the by-the-book, team-centric approach put in place by acting director Christine Clark (Sylvestra Le Touzel). Until now, her squad may be a bit slow and overly reliant on one expert staffer (Tuva, an ex-hacker played by Gana Bayarsaikhan), but they’re getting the paperwork filed and keeping the country’s most critical computers relatively safe.
Still, sturdy episodic set-ups end up littered with missed opportunities, as red flags turn out to be red herrings. When Christine complains about a lack of hard copies to study because the printer is busted, it’s not an excuse for Jerry to prove his value (despite his many flaws) by introducing a paperless approach to cyber security (which seems obvious, doesn’t it?); it’s an excuse for a joke about fixing the printer by falling on it. When Jerry assumes Joseph (played by series creator and writer Nick Mohammed) is his assistant, lobbing insults about his “dwarfism” and throwing out repeated racial stereotypes, it’s not a way for the sheepish junior analyst to stand up for himself, or even a way to humble Jerry so he can fit in with his new team; it’s just a crude portrait of an American stereotype that never builds to anything more.
Schwimmer and Mohammed spend enough time together to work out a certain rapport, and they’re clearly meant to become the series’ emotional backbone: colleagues who become friends, who then become irrevocably entwined in each other’s lives. They’re both, for the most part, morons, which can create absurd bits of hit-and-miss humor where they try to scheme their way past Christine’s exacting eye. (A scene involving a lie detector test works pretty well, mainly thanks to Schwimmer’s commitment.) But their doofy similarities also make them too similar to exist on their own. A third party is needed to establish any conflict, and Christine isn’t dynamic enough to be a compelling foil; she’s right, but Mohammed (the writer) leaves her no room for levity (despite Le Touzel’s best efforts).
The supporting players do what they can to elevate the laughs (Jane Stannis makes for a memorably loopy wild card named Mary), while Gavin Buckley’s editing and Matt Lipsey’s direction keep the pace quick and jokes flowing. But there are fundamental issues to the narrative that undercut most of the comedy. Most of the characters, including Joseph and the pre-existing staff, are presented as so inept you have to wonder how they’ve kept their jobs, and yet they still somehow manage to complete the complicated work put in front of them. How? Don’t worry about it. Even their high-profile screw-ups — like when Jerry walks a hacker into HQ for no apparent reason — are skated past, as though the group is mysteriously infallible. It’s not that comedies have to be realistic, but typically they either offer explanations for what happens, or lean into the incompetence and laugh at the ensuing disasters.
“Intelligence” tries to have it both ways, and not just in its plotting. Jerry himself feels haphazardly patched together, a pitiable figure one moment and a loathsome one the next. His arc isn’t very well planned out, and by the end of six episodes, it’s the flip of a coin how you feel about the inevitable (though totally unbelievable) outcome. All that’s purely good is provided by Schwimmer himself. He throws himself into every silly scene, whether he’s sliding across a table for a precise pratfall or feverishly scooping up raisins for a mid-meeting treat. Schwimmer knows what the joke is every time; he knows whether it’s his joke or his co-star’s; he knows whether he’s being laughed at or laughed with; he knows how to play to the camera and how to listen to his scene partners. If only his specificity and knowledge was shared by the rest of the series. Then “Intelligence” might be more than just a reminder that this guy belongs in (good) comedy.
“Intelligence” Season 1 premieres all six episodes Wednesday, July 15 on Peacock.