The Night Agent

4 out of 5

Created by: Shawn Ryan

covers season 1

It’s tempting to call The Night Agent’s government conspiracy action an “old school” thriller – reminding of the kind of flick that’d be a weekend smash at the theaters in the 90s – and while this 10-episode series is, absolutely, of that mold, with Gabriel Basso as Peter Sutherland, green FBI agent who gets mixed up in matters beyond his station, and Luciane Buchanan as Rose Larkin, the innocent who finds herself wrapped up in the same web, it’s ultimately very new school: divvying this stuff up into its sharp, tense, hour-long segments, expertly hopping between its various subplots until they can be wound together, is proof of the success of the streaming model, and the differences found in modern TV versus 22-episode seasons of yore. It makes it hard to imagine how such a story could be told effectively in two hours or less, and the answer is, it couldn’t – at least not in this same way, that makes every double cross and ante-up feel earned.

I’m side-stepping some imperfections: our opening episode does not actually bode well, very clunkily setting up Pete’s role as a paper pusher, having being shushed there after a bad-for-government-PR action extravaganza during then opening; and forcing Rose into things by sending her home to her folks after a failed security startup makes her bankrupt – during the night, she hears chatter which suggests her parents are maybe super secret spies, and soon enough, their house is getting shot up, and Rose is passed a number to call: the night agent’s desk, the one manned by Pete. All of this is told with the most painful expository dialogue, including a lot of hand-holding from Pete’s boss, chief of staff Diane Farr (Hong Chau). Basso seems lost; Buchanan seems set on damsel mode; Chau doing aimless tuff and gruff leader stuff. And throughout, you get some semi-typical fudges, allowing Rose to function as a tech know-it-all (sure, I know telecom AND I can hack into a bank, etc.), and playing a little loosey-goosey with how strict everyone is or isn’t with government / FBI / etc. policy as it fits the narrative.

But: the show massively turns around its tone in the second episode, dropping the exposition, and letting its actors fill out its cutouts with lots of depth: Basso plays Sutherland’s puppy-dog nature into one of quiet observation, blending proactive and reactive action in a way that fits his character; Buchanan similarly rolls Rose’s relative naievety into someone learning and adapting as they go; and Chau starts owning her part soon enough, proving to be someone caught between dedication to duty and / or to people… Storywise, those fudges also aren’t abused: there’re appreciative steps toward making Rose’s hacks look (and sound) believable, limiting her wild hackerness by the power of whatever machines she’s working with, and foregoing fancy UXes; the wishy-washiness of policies could also be said to be part of the story – the way things get sneaked between the rules – and helps to play up the “who can you trust?” angle the show works incredibly well.

The tension mined with the trust angle is the show’s secret weapon: it’s never too far ahead of us, showing connections either once Pete and Rose learn of them – which they do logically, and through fun detective work – or as they become relevant to keep the story moving, without relying on overly tricksy info withholdings or “who’s watching from that POV camera?” nonsense; the twists are fun and are not cheap – the show would easily hold up on a second viewing with someone else along for the ride.

Some subplots do pad things out, but not to a ruinous degree. I’ve liked Eve Harlow in previous projects, but playing her up as a crazy in a pair of assassins doesn’t quite work, and is one of the show’s least interesting asides, though it does pay off in at least giving the assassins a backstory that makes them notable; the show takes a similar Is This Really Necessary? route when involving Sarah Desjardins as the vice president’s daughter, but again, her eventual role ultimately gains more weight as a result. And by applying a somewhat even hand to all the major and minor characters, Fola Evans-Akingbola’s secret service agent Chelsea and her partner, played by D. B. Woodside, both get to shine, Fola easily becoming a favorite as she, too, gets wrapped up in the conspiracy ups and downs.

While the basic, This Goes All The Way To The Top! premise of The Night Agent is nothing new, the quality of the show – how well it uses its runtime and budget to tell a full story, with rewarding character arcs and great action – suggests we might have survived the streaming wars ups and downs to eventually get to another peak era of TV. If other series can follow this tight and focused template, we’ll have fair reason to re-up with our preferred station.