Epix is primarily known these days for its extensive movie library, but the premium-cable network did give original programming a go back in 2009, when the channel was in its nascency. A pilot was shot for Tough Trade, a family drama from Jenji Kohan, but it never aired. The series starred Sam Shepard, Cary Elwes, and Joey Lauren Adams, and centered on a Nashville-based country music dynasty. The episode tested well, but something about the cast or plot didn’t sit well with Epix executives, who passed on the series in 2010.
Given the popularity of Nashville and Empire, it’s hard not to read this as a missed opportunity for Epix, who waited five years before delving back into scripted territory. But the network set out to make up for lost time in May 2015, handing out series orders to Graves, a White House-adjacent comedy from Joshua Michael Stern, and the espionage drama Berlin Station, which was created by spy novelist Olen Steinhauer. Because both series tell politically charged and timely stories—Graves follows a rueful Republican played by Nick Nolte, while Berlin Station’s home to an Edward Snowden-like whistle-blower—Epix seems poised to benefit from recent surveillance scandals and the current presidential election. If only its success hinged solely on relevance.
At first glance, Graves looks especially comfortable in its post-first-female-presidential-nominee position, nestled as it is in between seasons of Veep, which undoubtedly serves as a source of inspiration for Stern’s series. (Then again, Veep season five appeared to touch on some plot details from his Swing Vote, so let’s just call it even.) The half-hour comedy centers on former President Richard Graves, who is regarded as both the last great Republican commander-in-chief, and the worst leader of the free world to date. When Graves realizes those aren’t mutually exclusive descriptions, he sets out to right some wrongs, most of which involve the political right, to which his wife Margaret (Sela Ward) still very much belongs.
The saying roughly goes that you have no heart if you don’t have liberal leanings in your youth, but if you aren’t conservative by the time you’re middle aged, then what you lack is common sense (or, to keep with the organ talk, a brain). Graves is 25 years past his presidency but not his prime, and he intends to undo some of the damage that his policies—including gutting cancer research funds and paving the way for mass deportations—have done. His amends-making tour sees him kneed in the balls by a Rachel Maddow type (Nora Dunn) and square off against a fastidious politician played by Bob Balaban, who seems determined to wink in and out of shows like some mischievous sprite this fall (see also: Pitch).
Beyond that, though, this runaway train of regret is on a surprisingly smooth ride. Graves’ reversal should generate more conflict with Margaret, who has some political aspirations of her own, not unlike a certain former real-life White House occupant who moved into the Senate and Cabinet. Margaret’s base is being eroded by her husband’s change (or acquisition) of heart, which eventually sees them hosting hundreds of undocumented immigrants on their Santa Fe estate. But though Ward certainly looks presidential, her Margaret lacks Selina Meyer’s naked ambition (to say nothing of her way with obscenities), which renders this chunk of the plot a non-starter.
Skylar Astin adds bewilderment to the mix as Graves’ assistant Isaiah, who’s stuck admiring Graves 1.0, and unable to comprehend this new model. But, like everyone else on the compound, he doesn’t provide much of a counterpoint. Even this far from Washington, D.C., Graves still manages to get everyone to play along with his whims. They’re ostensibly more right-minded or conscionable than before, but since they’re a complete 180 from where he was before, they should probably raise more eyebrows and resistance from his family. Instead, the show plays like A Christmas Carol, but with Graves handing out turkeys at the end of every half hour: “You get a temporary visa! And you get a temporary visa!” And though the references are apt, the comedy is slight. Stern’s loose cannon is ultimately kind of a dud—Graves aims for Bulworth, but ends up Guarding Tess.
Berlin Station fares better in mining hot-button issues for drama, but it’s still a slow burn. Olen Steinhauer’s put together another spy thriller with a faded template (does the sun ever shine in Germany?) that still has plenty of bright spots in the cast and story. The first two episodes are a bit scattered, though, and you’ll find yourself doing some Carrie Mathison-level parsing of clues early on to figure out who has the potential to determine just what and who is at stake. And that’s before all the truly clandestine shit goes down.
That Homeland reference ends up being right at home in Berlin Station, which also centers on German journalists and surveillance. Of course, that older storyline could have just as easily borrowed from the European nation’s own tradition of listening in on others. But the Berlin setting doesn’t just inform the series’ treatment of international quagmires and sensitivity to scandals. The long history and high visibility of Berlin’s LGBT community also provides a metaphor for all the secrecy of espionage. It’s kind of an obvious choice, but that concept of double lives does indeed apply across the board, and it also reflects a deeper understanding of the area.
Richard Armitage leads the series as Daniel Miller, a CIA analyst turned operative who’s tasked with tracking down one Thomas Shaw, who’s kind of the Julian Assange of Germany. Shaw has been leaking highly sensitive CIA data via a Berlin journalist, revealing just how inextricably linked the German and American intelligence communities are. It’s embarrassing and dangerous for both governments, and the rash of incidents leaves the Berlin Station of the CIA scrambling. Berlin chief Steve Frost (Richard Jenkins) is dealing with more than the leaks; he’s struggling to retain control of staff, which appears to have a mole and a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Jenkins is commanding in this new role: Even as the head of a besieged CIA outpost, he still sounds like he knows more than everyone else.
Much like his biblical namesake, Daniel’s been thrown into the lion’s den. He’s not quite outmatched, but he is outnumbered: When everyone around you dissembles as well as you do, it becomes almost impossible to keep your enemies straight. Daniel avoids the perilous intraoffice politics, though he too has ulterior motives. Armitage, who’s best known for playing a dragon and fighting one, slips easily into this extraordinary everyman role, making Daniel a convincing desk jockey and seductive field agent. The German-bred analyst has a tragic backstory he’s not so great at hiding, though. It’s supposed to inspire Daniel’s conflicted feelings about “going home” again, but his inability to conceal his past ends up undermining his competence a bit.
These reveals continue throughout the first part of the series: Steinhauer doesn’t draw out the mystery of the whistle-blower’s identity, nor their motivations. We discover early on who’s behind the leaks, but we can’t yet fathom the lengths they’ll go to maintain the conspiracy. Suspense and suspicions still run high, though—Daniel might be in his old haunts, and around his old partner Hector (Rhys Ifans), but he’s still an outsider. He’s also trying to keep up appearances in three different versions of his own life. But, as we soon learn, he’s not the only one.
It remains to be seen how well this cards-on-the-table approach serves the story in the long run, but the tension of a mystery and its satisfying resolution isn’t always the order of the day. Berlin Station also draws parallels between the hiding in plain sight that spies do with the discretion that LGBT folks have to demonstrate even in a city like Berlin, which established the world’s first gay district (or village). While some characters are openly gay, others remain closeted, but they’re not the only ones leading double lives. They also share a desire with their hetero-counterparts to let their guard down, a vulnerability that can come at a high cost. Figuring out how to obtain that level of authenticity seems just as important to Berlin Station as stopping Thomas Shaw.
Created by: Joshua Michael Stern
Starring: Nick Nolte, Sela Ward, Skylar Astin, Callie Hernandez, Angélica Maria, Heléne Yorke, Chris Lowell
Debuts: October 16 on Epix
Format: Half-hour comedy
Three episodes watched for review
Created by: Olen Steinhauer
Starring: Richard Armitage, Rhys Ifans, Richard Jenkins, Michelle Forbes, Leland Orser
Debuts: October 16 on Epix
Format: Hourlong espionage drama
Two episodes watched for review