Apple TV+'s Spy Series Liaison Dabbles with Greatness, but Never Quite Arrives

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Apple TV+'s Spy Series <i>Liaison</i> Dabbles with Greatness, but Never Quite Arrives

First, let’s acknowledge that it’s a boom time for the spy genre on TV. In the last decade, there have been some duds, some perfectly fine and ultimately forgettable efforts, and some absolute gems. In the latter category, the French series The Bureau, which ran from 2015 to 2020, is one of the best “serious” spy shows ever made, and more recently (on the lighter side), Apple TV+’s Slow Horses achieved great heights on the strength of great plotting and a masterclass of scummy genius from Gary Oldman. Just a little earlier, shows like The Americans and Homeland made enormous impacts on more mainstream TV, and brilliant LeCarre miniseries adaptations like The Night Manager and Little Drummer Girl seem to pop up every once in a while. That’s really just scratching the surface—you could mention anything from Killing Eve to Archer—but the success of these shows is a mixed blessing for any new attempt in the genre. Obviously, it makes it easier to get a spy show made, but on the flip side, you’re inevitably going to be judged against some very stiff competition.

Liaision, the new show from Apple TV+, is good with occasional forays into very good, and that’s the simplest way to put it. Apple has been on an uncanny tear lately, distinguishing itself above all other streaming services, and here again we see that commitment to quality shine through. But in a landscape so crowded, there’s also a serious risk that it may land with very little impact, and a near certainty of being quickly forgotten.

In terms of tone, Liaison belongs to the Bureau sub-genre of spy TV: global in nature, serious in affect, and riddled with moments of great tension. (It’s possible to imagine Apple commissioning this on the basis of wanting their own Bureau, so similar are the ambitions.) In the first episode, we see a pair of Syrian hackers escape capture by the skin of their teeth, and flee to western Europe in an attempt to gain asylum. It turns out, these hackers know a thing or two about some very serious acts of cyber-terrorism about to hit the U.K., and as the attacks unfold on the nation’s infrastructure, growing increasingly deadly, the two hackers become a hot commodity. Vincent Cassel stars as Gabriel, a former French agent turned mercenary who is hunting down the hackers for a rogue element of the French intelligence sector seeking to gain influence in the halls of power. He’s helped and haunted by Alison Rowdy (Eva Green), his former lover, a semi-mysterious figure with big pull in the UK intelligence community. Cassel is particularly good, while Green makes hay from her cold inscrutability and the brief moments of thaw, and together they propel the show in ways that keep it watchable.

However—and it’s a big however—a show tackling these types of issues requires great commitment in order to be truly great. What distinguished The Bureau was its sheer voluminous intelligence and restraint, and while this kind of assiduous plot-making might not yield the proper benefits in a different genre, in spy shows it tends to elevate everything, and paradoxically render the plot more intelligible, not less, for its grasp of global reapolitik. Where Liaison fails is its dearth of ambition; where it would be hard to explain something, or to make the plot resonate, the creators fall back on the dual crutches of vagueness and interpersonal drama. The audience, and particularly the streaming audience, is too smart for this, and the moments where Liaison rings hollow have a way of undermining all that’s good about the show.

To choose one example, the disastrous hack of the UK rail system, resulting in a train crash (that just so happens to injure Rowdy’s boyfriend’s daughter), prompts the U.K. to reconsider signing a cyber-security deal with the EU, from whom it broke off during Brexit. Fair enough. But the signing of this pact is seemingly left to two people, and when an advisor to the French Prime Minister wants to stop it in its tracks for his own ambitions, he can commission his mistress, who happens to be an assistant to the guy in Brussels in charge of this stuff, to just tell the Brits that the man in charge is out of town. This is, unfortunately, ridiculous; people have phones, and email, and the ability to plan; governments, you would think, don’t approach the signing of a major security agreement by sending over two ambassadors with orders to “see what you can do.” Then, when Rowdy circumvents these efforts by marching into the guy’s office (he’s happy to oblige), it’s derailed again by more extreme measures, i.e. the ridiculous death of a key figure in the negotiations. Here you see the dual faults—the banal, and the grotesque. Both detract from the reality of the show.

All of which means that Liaison doesn’t quite earn the right to take itself so seriously, and doesn’t quite honor its commitment to the global scope of its narrative. That’s a shame, because there’s a lot here to be admired, but the best elements are sabotaged by a certain laziness in writing. It can feel at those moments like a big waste of potential, not to mention the talent of Vincent Cassel.

It rebounds eventually to the same lesson, which is that spy shows set in the real world—that is, devoid of comedy or at least a few sly stylistic winks—demand a comprehensive understanding of the subject matter. This is, undoubtedly, a monumental task requiring writers of both ability and experience. It requires a very specific kind of ambition that goes beyond the mere making of a passable TV show, which Liaision very much is. It requires, at least, an avoidance of the easy twist, the convenient explanation, the passive turn of plot. By failing this high standard, Liaison limits itself, and almost guarantees a place of obscurity in a genre that has no time for anything less than excellence.

Liaison premieres Friday, February 24th on Apple TV+

Shane Ryan is a writer and editor. You can find more of his writing and podcasting at Apocalypse Sports, and follow him on Twitter here .

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