If “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” was Amazon’s attempt to supply its streaming service Prime Video with a homegrown version of “Game of Thrones,” the new spy series “Citadel” is its attempt at a “Squid Game, ” “Money Heist” or “Love Is Blind”: a show with the global appeal to match the reach of its platform, and a potential franchise that could support international spinoffs. The idea originated not with a writer, director or producer, but with Amazon Studios head Jennifer Salke, who approached AGBO, the production company of Anthony and Joe Russo, with a business plan in search of a creative concept.
As with the underwhelming “Rings of Power,” that cart-before-the-horse approach can’t help showing in the final product. Also evident is a reportedly chaotic production that included extensive reshoots, a showrunner switch and a shortened episode order. There are traces of that turmoil in the credits; the pilot’s teleplay is attributed to no fewer than five screenwriters. But even if you aren’t the type to close-read an IMDb page, the origins of “Citadel” are obvious enough in the execution: a choppy, generic blockbuster-by-numbers with a nine-figure budget you’d never detect from the chintzy CGI.
Not that quality really matters for Amazon, which has already greenlit a second season of “Citadel,” as well as satellite shows set in Italy and India. In theory, this English-language flagship will be the center of a whole interconnected universe. But a sprawling structure needs a rock-solid foundation, and the one “Citadel” provides is shaky at best.
Synopsizing “Citadel” feels redundant. While technically original, the story could be sourced from a word cloud of the Wikipedia page for “spy thriller.” The titular organization is an international syndicate concerned with Cold War-era threats like loose nuclear weapons. Its two top agents, Mason (Richard Madden) and Nadia (Priyanka Chopra Jonas), share a sexual tension communicated with braindead much in lieu of chemistry. (Her: “I’ll be gentle.” Him: “I’ve got a feeling you don’t know how to be.”) They’re assisted by a wise-cracking techie, who largely stays behind the scenes, as they face off against a posh, ice-cold Brit. These cookie-cutter roles are filled by Stanley Tucci and Lesley Manville, respectively, the only two actors who seem aware of the silliness around them and ham it up accordingly. Would that the show shared their sense of humor.
There are traces of a stronger series in the premise. Intelligence organizations tied to nation-states, Tucci explains, “have started wars, assassinated world leaders, and killed innocents,” so Citadel was founded to serve no interest but humanity’s. Should “Citadel” care to mine it, there’s a vein of sociopolitical critique there. Yet the setup feels more like a cynical play for transnational appeal than a hard look at real-life surveillance work and the media that glamorizes it. Manticore, Citadel’s foil, is supposedly funded by a coalition of oligarchs, but it acts more like an obligatory antagonist than a symbol of extreme wealth’s corrosive impact. What else to expect from a product from Jeff Bezos, Inc.?
Unambitious cliches can at least be entertaining. Here, once again, “Citadel” falls short of the bare minimum. The opening scene, a fight on a train, echoes that of Madden’s hit series “Bodyguard,” which only underscores how this version lacks tension and sticks to the actor with an unconvincing American accent. At less than 40 minutes each, the episodes don’t prolong our agony, yet crucial bits of context seem to be lost on the cutting room floor. The definition of insanity is trying the same thing and expecting different results; after “The Rings of Power,” Amazon is once more trying to buy a global phenomenon without the basic arguments to back it up. The Everything Store has gone mad, and “Citadel” certainly can’t save it.
The first two episodes of “Citadel” are now streaming on Amazon Prime Video, with new episodes dropping weekly on Fridays.