Perhaps it’s the way Netflix has conditioned us to think about its shows, but upon watching even just the pilot of The Recruit we couldn’t help but reduce it to its comparable titles. You know, the row of ones that would be recommended if you binged your way through it and hoped to find something similar to watch. You’d see Alias there, of course. And the likes of Chuck and Nikita. Maybe even stuff like The Blacklist and Covert Affairs. Which is to say: Many of the elements of this spy-adjacent show starring Internet boyfriend Noah Centineo feel decidedly familiar.
The Recruit is not so much a throwback to shows you loved as much as it is a facile facsimile of them, one that struggles to find its own reason to exist other than to join such an illustrious row on your Netflix homepage. In algorithm-speak, if you enjoyed shows like those, you’re likely to find something to love about Centineo’s first stab at becoming a Gen Z action hero. (He’s the kind of agent who, in times of crisis, actually suggests using his Instagram drafts folder to transfer highly sensitive information; no, really.)
Maybe that logline is enough to pique your interest; The Recruit, after all, knows exactly who its audience is. Why else would the very first words coming out of Centineo’s character’s mouth be lyrics to a Taylor Swift song? If you must know more about the premise of the show, don’t worry. It’s quite simple. That is, until, in true spy-caper form, the plot continues to get more and more complicated, even as its set pieces and action sequences become easily spotted a mile away.
Owen Hendricks (Centineo) is the new kid at the CIA. A lawyer by trade, he’s now been recruited to be part of the agency’s legal team, tasked with the most inane job of them all. As a kind of hazing, Owen is called to rifle through the many threatening letters the agency gets on any given day and figure out whether any of them pose any actual threat to national security. Dutiful boy that he is, Owen finds one that may well be worth following up on. Max Meladze (Laura Haddock, giving us Lena Olin-on-Alias vibes) is sitting in jail for murder. But she apparently has secrets that could jeopardize the agency’s operations in Russia and Belarus. (This is a spy show, after all.) Owen has every reason to believe she’s actually onto something. She’s a liability if they don’t help her.
The rookie, of course, dives headfirst into Max’s case. And his co-workers (played by The Big Bang Theory’s Aarti Mann and Superstore’s Colton Dunn, casting choices that hint at the Veep-like energy the Alexi Hawley-created show flirts with) are all too happy to haze him further. If getting tortured in a black ops site could unironically be called “on-the-job hazing,” that is. Which is precisely what happens. It’s but the first instance where Owen’s seeming gullibility is married to an impossibly lucky streak that continues for episodes on end. Somehow we’re constantly led to believe Owen is but a bumbling “golden boy” who always comes out on top—whether his missions end up demanding he escape assassination attempts left and right or overpower and outmaneuver skilled spies in exotic locales fit for the James Bond type he constantly insists he isn’t: “I’m not a spy. I’m a lawyer,” he notes every other episode. Or, as he puts it mid-season, “If I worked in intelligence you think I’d be so bad at it?”
He’s bad at it because, as he admits to his roommate slash former girlfriend slash one of his various love interests in the show (we are to believe no woman, it seems, can refuse his effortless charms), he never behaves. He’s not good at it. Such a trope of a guy needing to bend the rules to get shit done is so overdone it’s almost laughable when presented so earnestly. And yet, he seems to be great at his job because, with Max’s guidance and much-needed help from those women around him, he constantly finds a way of not only staying alive but fulfilling his various mission briefs. All of which, of course, require him to jet set all over and continually demand he be paranoid of every new person he meets.
As the season careens into a wintry high-stakes final mission for Owen and Max, the show’s spidery plot culminates in a well-worn kind of standoff where Centineo is forced to deliver lines like, “You’re a prisoner of this incessant need to survive” with a straight face. It’s a testament to his commitment to the show and this character (who, we should note, is shirtless and/or in boxer briefs the requisite amount of times you’d expect) that Centineo doesn’t wholly drown in this outrageously absurd series. (Oh, did we forget to mention that subplot involving a torture robot?)
If the final episode is any indication, plans for a second season are surely well underway. The Recruit will no doubt perform as designed. That may require us all to forgo wanting to know more about Owen. Then again, he’s no character. He’s an engine for the show’s plot to move forward, for us to skip recaps and watch episode after episode to see what happens. One just wishes there was more to this spy drama than cheap thrills wrapped around a pretty boy who keeps failing upward (and into the wrong hands, over and over again).
The Recruit premieres on December 16 on Netflix.