There’s a strip from cartoonist Chris Onstad’s classic webcomic Achewood where a couple of anthropomorphic cats are watching “TV” (in reality, just their robot pal Lie-Bot in a cardboard box).
“Alright everybody!” Lie-Bot begins. “It’s time to see my ass!”
The cats are not fans of this proposal. “How do you know that a robot’s ass is bad?” Lie-Bot asks.
“IT MUST BE,” one shouts, off-panel.
“WHY FIND OUT,” yells the other.
Citadel is like that robot’s ass.
It’s not apparent from the first couple of episodes streaming on Prime Video, nor in their promotion, but Citadel is the first volley in what’s meant to be an international TV mega-franchise. Citadel is the flagship show, about super spies Mason Kane (Game of Thrones’ Richard Madden) and Nadia Sinh (Priyanka Chopra Jonas of Bollywood and Quantico fame) teaming up to save the world from certain doom. Down the pipeline there will be other international versions of Citadel, each with its own cast and plot, but all set in the same universe. Again: There’s just about no evidence for this in the first three of Citadel’s six episodes, but it’s very important to know if there’s any hope to understand what you’re watching.
More evidence can be found for Citadel’s troubled production, where behind-the-scenes turmoil caused costs to balloon, fights over creative direction, and eight hourlong episodes to be trimmed down to six 40-minute ones, two of which premiere on Friday. The resulting show isn’t incoherent, but it is haphazard — the narrative flashes backward and forward, characters constantly announce to each other who they are, and cliffhangers tease “twists” that were obvious from minute one.
What’s left is a G.I. Joe-ass superspy story, in the pejorative sense, and the most damning bit of evidence yet. The plot comes across as a game of schoolyard one-upmanship: The heroes work for Citadel, which is not just a spy agency, it’s the ultimate one, better than every country’s and serving no one but justice. The villains are Manticore, an evil counterpart to Citadel who are just everywhere. Every complication has a gadget made to solve it, up to and including memory loss (unless, whoops — we lost it).
It’s possible to see a satisfying version of Citadel hiding somewhere in the show that’s here. The setup is a fun one: After a mission gone wrong, Mason and Nadia are separated in an explosion, presumed dead and with their memories wiped by the spy tech in their brains. Eight years later, the two are living normal civilian lives in different parts of the world until Citadel tech genius Bernard Orlick (Stanley Tucci) reactivates them in order to stop Manticore from finding a device that will lead them to the final remaining Citadel agents and wiping them out. Trouble is, Nadia is the only one able to recover her memories and skills, meaning her partner Mason is a bit of a competent dummy.
Reading this, it would be reasonable to assume that Citadel was a rompier spy thriller; breezy, not too serious, and even funny. Unfortunately, that version of the show only appears in brief moments, the best of which is in the second episode, where Mason — aware that he’s a Citadel agent but still an amnesiac — tries to convince a very hostile Nadia that she’s also a superspy. It’s the rare moment where the characters feel like people that would be fun to follow around, but Citadel refuses to let them breathe. Every plot point brings up a flashback; every flashback is even less interesting than the minimal plot in the present day. Mercifully, every episode is over before one can come up with a strong feeling about it.
This is not a TV series. I would call it an algorithm, but that’d be an insult to algorithms. It’s not even an advertisement for the future Citadel mega-franchise, because that franchise doesn’t exist yet, and few people who aren’t making or reporting on it know that it’s even happening. (And as of this writing, it is very much happening: According to The Hollywood Reporter, Amazon has committed to three seasons of three different Citadel series, the next two of which are set in Italy and India, respectively.)
Citadel most closely resembles a scam, but a low-stakes one, like Avon. It is hard to tell if anyone is really benefiting from its existence outside of ABGO, the production company headed up by the Russo Brothers, who serve as Citadel’s executive producers. Watching the show is like transcribing a writers room staffed by 12-year-olds, who toss out lines like “nothing more dangerous to a pervy old man than red lips” and sort of expect people to roll with it. And, much like a grown man standing in front of a room full of children, I am unsure as to how mean I can be here without it being in poor taste.
No one has to do this. Do you know how many spy shows have premiered in the last month alone? Go watch Rabbit Hole, where you can enjoy Kiefer Sutherland being an unrepentant jerk of a corporate spy, framed for murder. Or The Night Agent, which lacks star power but has a great hook (FBI agent has to watch a phone that never rings... until it does) and propulsive pacing once it gets going. Check out The Company You Keep if you like your spies on the sexier side. Or wait a few days and watch FUBAR, which might not be good, but has Arnold Schwarzenegger, and that’s not nothing.
It’s tempting to grade a show like Citadel on a curve. It doesn’t have the literary aspirations of prestige TV, and life is tough, you know? Everyone needs something to do while they fold laundry — why be so hard on the silly spy show?
Friends, there are so many shows to fold laundry to, and many of them don’t rely on the remote being out of reach for viewers to slide into episode 2. Citadel as it exists now is barely entertainment. It’s an invitation to a hotel conference room, where people are about to sell you on a bunch of other shows they’ve got coming.
There’s another season of Citadel on its way, along with those aforementioned spinoffs, and with the very expensive kinks worked out in this first season, maybe they’ll even be good. But based on this? I don’t know, man. Why find out?
Citadel’s first two episodes premiere on Prime Video on Friday, April 28, with new episodes weekly.