Spy movies are undeniably fun. Everyone loves a good old-fashioned James Bond movie where 007 prances around beautiful vacation spots and beats up cartoonish villains. But no one watches James Bond as a bold piece of historical fiction. Enter “Spy City,” AMC’s newest spy thriller series. Set in 1960s Berlin during the height of the Cold War, Fielding Scott (Dominic Cooper, “The Devil’s Double”) is an M16 Agent on a mission to uncover a Soviet secret weapon. In pursuing the weapon, he encounters enemies and possible double agents, and finds himself mixed up with a fellow agent and lover Severine (Romane Portail, “Mallory”).
On a surface level, the AMC series is a success with its impressive visuals. The city of Berlin looks simultaneously menacing and beautiful; both sides of the East-West divide have their own respective elements of humanity, and people in the Soviet sectors and Western sectors alike scrape by under the watchful eye of enemy spies looking for infiltrators. The directing itself is also quite good, with long, trailing shots, dark ambient hues and action sequences that are incredibly engaging.
For all the positive aspects of the show’s visual style, “Spy City” has absolutely nothing else to offer. Tropes of the spy genre are hashed and rehashed at an astonishingly slow pace. Take, for instance, the MacGuffin of the show. Supposedly, the Soviets are working on a gyroscope capable of sending missiles directly to major cities. Sound familiar? It’s a rehash of the classic, “The scary Russians have a (thing), and we must get the (thing), or else.” Without anything new to say, the show falls back on cheap references to better spy thrillers. It has all the hallmarks of a thrilling spy movie, but save for the hyper-realistic backdrop of the Cold War, nothing in the show feels particularly remarkable.
Amazingly, the plot’s weakness is not nearly the most tedious thing about the show. The characters of “Spy City” lack the charisma required to carry this type of thriller. Gone is the quiet, cool arrogance of a heroic spy or the fantastic gadgets in every mission. Instead, audiences get a bumbling hero who floats from scene to scene with no overarching sense of purpose; One scene, he might be trying to help his ex-lover with a side mission, while in another he’s talking to a Soviet defector. Nothing ties back to the main plot in a cohesive or meaningful way. In “Spy City,” the plot drives the characters, not the other way around.
The side cast isn’t much better. At best they’re dry, humorless sticks, and at worst they embody the most insulting caricatures of spy thrillers. Take Severine, for example. She’s the classic love interest and, of course, she’s French. Besides her obvious beauty and skin-deep character motivation, she acts as an appendage to our hero for the last half of the first episode. Likewise, three major nationalities are portrayed using only stereotypes: The Americans are portrayed as entitled imbeciles, the French as snobby cigar smokers and the Russians as gruff and malicious.
All in all, “Spy City” lacks everything a good spy thriller should have: a fantastic yet somewhat believable premise, a charismatic protagonist that pushes the plot forward and an interesting array of side characters who add life to the story. Despite its decent visual appeal, “Spy City” offers nothing more to the tired formula of spy thrillers. In a world where James Bond movies are so easy to stream, one has to wonder, why would someone watch a boring rip-off when they could get the real thing?
Daily Arts Writer Josh Thomas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.