Epix, a premium television network looking for viewers, makes its two biggest pushes into scripted content on Sunday, with the comedy Graves (which fellow The Hollywood Reporter critic Dan Fienberg was underwhelmed by) and the drama Berlin Station, which searches for something compelling and fails to find it in the first few hours.
That means that Epix will probably still be looking for viewers after Sunday; making something that’s just OK or even pretty good is not good enough in the oversaturated world of television today.
No real reason to care yet.
Berlin Station is a 10-episode spy story about the CIA’s “Berlin Station” in Germany and a series of damaging leaks from the fictional Thomas Shaw, whose name is tossed in next to Julian Assange and Edward Snowden as if those two were even similar, which is one of the first worrying things about the series. All we really know is that damning information is getting out and both the Americans and the Germans look bad, there’s probably something spookier (spy joke!) going on and the mass of people we’re introduced to have back stories we’re supposed to care about and yet don’t.
See, that’s the thing — television shows have to be compelling enough to make us want to devote precious time to them and if viewers get a whiff of something that’s off (like the inconsistent accents here) then interest will wane. I had trouble caring about anyone in Berlin Station because all the characters seemed to be blurry facsimiles of other characters from other series (or movies), and nothing in the first three hours that I watched set the hook.
Well, in fairness, the opening credits featuring David Bowie’s “I’m Afraid of Americans” interspersed with quick-cuts of Berlin hinted at something intriguing, which the series quickly fails to deliver on. Part of the problem with the show is that it gives viewers a possible “ending” and then reverts in time to tell its story, undercutting suspense while not convincingly selling the fact that what viewers saw was truly the end. It’s essential at that point to care about, well, anyone, and despite a cast of familiar names, it just doesn’t happen.
Some element of this might be due to the fact that successful American novelist Olen Steinhauer (The Tourist, The Cairo Affair), who created and wrote Berlin Station, is new to the TV game and unfolds the shady complexities of Berlin Station in a way that might have made sense on HBO years ago as a slow-build drama that eventually pays off — an exercise no longer allowed in this hyper-competitive landscape unless, say, you’re HBO. It’s a learning curve. And the first lesson needs to be that you can’t eventually become compelling — you have to do it rather quickly. And if the story needs time to gather steam, then you’d better have characters that pop.
Berlin Station benefits from being shot in Germany so that it can at least stick out visually — and director Michael R. Roskam (The Drop, Bullhead) does an excellent job of keeping you visually entertained. But this is a spy series looking for someone or something to make you care.
The accent issues don’t help. British actor Richard Armitage is playing the lead American undercover agent, sent to Germany to figure out who Thomas Shaw is, and the actor is mostly mumbling something that sounds vaguely American but could veer British if he put more oomph into it. Welsh actor Rhys Ifans also plays an American CIA agent but does a better job of it mostly because the character’s drink-heavy, pansexual background is more intriguing. Richard Jenkins, an excellent American actor, is the head of Berlin Station and solidifies much of the series with his gravitas, even if he doesn’t have much to work with early on.
As for the German actors, let’s just say that the accents seem to vary in intensity. These issues crop up with international productions and are often overlooked if the show actually captures your attention. The fact this is such a glaring flaw in Berlin Station tells you something.
It’s possible that the series will come together in its next seven hours (the first two you can stream for free) and at least find its narrative voice, but you’d have to have both a lot of hours to devote and a subscription to Epix — two things that are very unlikely.
Cast: Richard Armitage, Richard Jenkins, Rhys Ifans, Michelle Forbes, Tamlyn Tomita, Leland Orser
Created and written by: Olen Steinhauer
Directed by: Michael R. Roskam
Premieres: Sunday, 9 p.m., ET/PT (Epix)