The world is now ten years beyond Netflix’s first forays into original programming, and even after all this time, it’s still easy to guess where some of the platforms shows may have ended up in a pre-streaming world. The rote new sitcom Blockbuster, for example, would be right at home in the ABC lineup, wedged between The Goldbergs and the excellent outlier Abbott Elementary. It’s hard to believe that the always-great series Sex Education isn’t already a BBC teen comedy, or that Big Mouth doesn’t air on Fox before Family Guy. I give all of these examples not as a thought exercise, but because the enjoyable and somewhat silly new Netflix show The Recruit can best be described in exactly one way; it’s just like a USA Network action dramedy.
If you’ve gotten inexplicably hooked on series like White Collar, Burn Notice, In Plain Sight, or any other number of frothy, fast-paced semi-procedurals like them, you’ll know exactly what I mean. If not, suffice it to say that The Recruit is a very fun and fairly low-investment way to pass a few hours. Noah Centineo, whose breakout turn in the To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before franchise was almost overwhelmingly charming, dials it down a few notches here to play Owen Hendricks, a twentysomething CIA recruit who gets thrown into the deep end of the Agency days after joining despite, as he keeps pointing out, being hired as a lawyer and not an agent.
The Recruit wears the standard suit and tie of your average federal agency drama, but it’s a snappy show that stays watchable thanks to its commitment to a version of the CIA that’s loony, cutthroat, and (maybe this part’s not a stretch) prone to casually normalizing the unthinkable. Much of its humor and intrigue comes from Owen’s navigation of his new workplace, as he commits faux pas that accidentally lead him into torture chambers, shady storage units, and international relations crises – and that’s all in the first episode. At times, he’s almost unbelievably bumbling, but the wild nature of his paper trail-averse job means the newcomer can try and fail as much as he wants as long as there isn’t massive collateral damage.
This makes for a creatively plotted first season that glides along at a nice clip, especially when Owen quickly becomes entangled in a dangerous mission involving a former asset named Max (Laura Haddock). The lawyer is tasked with sifting through a pile of potential “graymail,” aka possible blackmail threats against the CIA and the nation, to see what sticks. When he discovers that Max can and will compromise agency operations if she’s not freed from prison, his new gig quickly turns into a lot more complicated and deadly than he imagined.
The Recruit isn’t afraid to paint a picture of the CIA that’s deeply amoral (when it’s not outright immoral), but it’s also not interested in closely examining the real-life shaky moral ground on which its fantasy-adjacent story walks. It’s in part a workplace comedy, except that every hazing ritual, staff meeting, quid pro quo, and mission Owen takes part in is less about protecting national secrets and more about protecting his coworkers’ asses. The less anyone knows about each other’s work, he’s told at one point, the better, because nothing puts a damper on your day more than getting subpoenaed when someone else’s screw-ups turn into a national scandal. It’s tough to say whether this approach to a controversial real-life agency is overly-cavalier or subtly scathing, but either way, it’s undoubtedly fun to watch.
The Recruit isn’t shot or edited with particular precision, and it makes a few clumsy script choices, but its wacky, action-packed premise and the ease with which Centineo embodies his character make it light, easily digestible fare. The Recruit also works thanks to a comedic undercurrent that’s sustained by Centineo and a supporting cast that includes Colton Dunn (who was so great in Superstore) and Kristian Bruun (ditto, but with Orphan Black) among others. The season ultimately lands in a deadly serious place, but before that, it has a goofy charm that makes it easy to hang on from one of Owen’s near-death experiences to the next.
Television has been pulling out all the stops this fall with massive, try-hard prestige shows like House of the Dragon and Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. But shows like The Recruit, the equally breezy and even more fun new Willow series, and Netflix’s popular YA mystery Wednesday prove that, as we head into 2023, a break from dead serious television might be just what the TV doctor ordered.