Can’t match Netflix? At least you can buy some British shows
By Mike Hale
When you want to start a streaming service and your most established competitor has for years been spending billions of dollars making and acquiring exclusive series, what do you do?
Disney+ and Apple TV+ chose to go halfway when they debuted last year, addressing Netflix’s unassailable lead with offerings of original shows that, in each case, amounted to more than a handful but less than a roster.
This year, Peacock and HBO Max have gone for what could be called the British option. Behind each service’s first marquee series — “Love Life” for HBO Max, “Brave New World” for Peacock — the section devoted to originals has been filled out with shows made and already seen across the Atlantic. The Special Relationship may not have the geopolitical juice it once had, but it’s alive and well in streaming video.
Peacock, which made its debut Wednesday, opened with just three original scripted series for adults, two of them British. On the surface the imports are quite different from each other: “The Capture,” from BBC, is an hourlong, tightly wound conspiracy thriller while the workplace sitcom “Intelligence,” from Sky, is a 22-minute goof.
But if you look past genre, they have some things in common. Both are cautionary tales about the British intelligence services. “The Capture” warns that the spies are stealing your liberties and will disappear you if you protest. “Intelligence” warns that they’re marginally competent wackos more interested in food delivery and photocopier high jinks than in preventing cyberterror.
More interesting, given their prominent placement on Peacock, is that both employ a favorite British target: the ugly American. The shortcomings of the British characters are finessed by shifting attention to an American interloper whose malignancy is exceeded only by his shallowness.
In “The Capture,” he’s a cool operative running an off-the-books surveillance operation in London and pulling the strings of his peers in the British spy and police services. This would constitute a spoiler, as he doesn’t show up right away in the engagingly convoluted story, if Ron Perlman’s name weren’t so prominent in the credits.
In “Intelligence,” he’s a National Security Agency liaison to Britain’s cyberterrorism unit, and it probably says all you need to know about the show’s view of Americans that the hammerheaded, narcissistic character is played by David Schwimmer, that avatar of hammerheaded American narcissism.
“Intelligence” was created by British actor and comedian Nick Mohammed, and he cast himself in the cringiest role as Joseph, a bumbler who strenuously sucks up to the American newcomer, Schwimmer’s Jerry.
Mohammed is amusing as the nervous sycophant, as is Jane Stanness as a frump whose submerged libido and unsuspected spying skill are played for laughs. (Mongolia-born model and actress Gana Bayarsaikhan, as an intimidating analyst whom Jerry immediately fetishizes, has presence but isn’t as sure a comedian.) Amid the “Office”-like ensemble, the accomplished Sylvestra Le Touzel (“The Crown,” “Happy-Go-Lucky”) stands out as the boss, Jerry’s mostly button-down antagonist.
The focus is on Jerry, though, as he preens, broadcasts his sexism and xenophobia and tries to get the British to loosen up with group hugs and trust exercises that tend to involve undressing in the office. (He expresses a British idea of an American’s idea of the British when he says of the office, “There’s still this sense that I’ve wandered onto an abandoned farm.”) Schwimmer is what he is: calculatedly awkward and not all that funny when Jerry is blustering and oddly disarming when Jerry is vulnerable, which isn’t often. “Intelligence” is mild tea overall, but it’s an easy binge at just over two hours for its six episodes.
“The Capture,” also a six-parter, is the better of the Peacock imports, a reasonably entertaining and well-constructed (at least in its early episodes) example of a classic style of British television conspiracy thriller, most recently seen in “Bodyguard” on BBC and Netflix.
Its hook is surveillance culture, and it posits that British law enforcement (with American help) is not only employing the kind of facial-recognition software popular in China but has also moved onto more advanced and sinister uses of video technology. The series, written and directed by Ben Chanan (“The Missing”), teases a larger theme about storytelling — that governments can use technology to fictionalize their citizens’ lives — but it mostly settles for being a straightforward thriller with the stylistic tic of often presenting the action through closed-circuit cameras.
Holliday Grainger (“C.B. Strike”) embodies clipped efficiency and self-righteousness as Rachel, a rising star in counterterrorism who’s doing a career-enhancing stint as a detective inspector with the regular police. She’s called in when a worker monitoring a video feed sees a woman being knocked down and abducted on the street; the man in the video is a former soldier, Shaun (Callum Turner of “The Only Living Boy in New York”), who just that day had been acquitted of murdering an Aghan civilian, after the video evidence against him was discredited.
It’s a tricky setup, and “The Capture” gets progressively more complicated and double-crossy as Rachel and Shaun form an uneasy alliance. (The video of Shaun abducting the woman is, no surprise, not entirely on the up and up.) The show holds up fairly well if you’re the kind of conspiracy story fan who’s satisfied when each step proceeds more or less plausibly from the step before; if you’re the kind of fan who wants the overall plot to feel as if it could actually take place in the real world, well, good luck.
If there’s a larger point to the inclusion of “The Capture” and “Intelligence” in Peacock’s initial lineup, it may have to do with the smaller role that such “originals” are playing while services promote their libraries of older series and franchise movies to counter Netflix’s focus on the new. The British shows HBO Max launched with, like “Ghosts” and “Home,” have largely disappeared from the home page a few months later. And the tier for “Peacock Originals” is several levels down, well below “Jurassic Park” and “30 Rock” (and even the Bravo reality series “Below Deck Mediterranean”). If you want something different, you need to find it yourself.