‘Intelligence’ Review: Schwimmer Is Off the Leash, Baby!

     July 15, 2020

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After Friends ended in 2004, David Schwimmer (Ross “Pivot!” Gellar) took on lots of fascinating career moves. He’s directed Simon Pegg comedies and Clive Owen thrillers. He’s done lots of theater work. He’s returned to television — albeit very dramatic television — in a quietly scene-stealing supporting role on The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story. But what he hasn’t done is return to a leading role on comedy television… until now, and not a moment too soon. There are lots of sharp, well-written, delightfully-performed pleasures throughout Peacock’s Intelligence, a six-episode comedy series produced and originally aired in Britain. And chief among them is Schwimmer’s beautifully unhinged, physically invigorating, and surprisingly vulnerable leading performance.

Christine (Sylvestra Le Touzel) is the tightly wound captain of an unfortunately loose ship: The United Kingdom’s Government Communications Headquarters, a facility that tracks and busts the most nefarious (and often most boring) of cybercrimes. Her staff is a lovable band of misfits — the cooler-than-cool hacker extraordinaire Tuva (Gana Bayarsaikhan), the platonic ideal of a “cat lady” Mary (Jane Stanness), and the clueless-but-lovable Joseph (Nick Mohammed, also the show’s writer/creator). Their fragile (and very British) ecosystem is supremely rocked by the very American NSA rockstar Jerry (Schwimmer), brought in as a liaison with a new attitude and a past to hide. As he tries to mesh with his new team, tempers flare, friendships form, and cyber-shenanigans ensue most pleasantly.

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Image via Peacock

The pitch for this show is easy and instantly identifiable. It’s Veep but for cyber-security! It’s the sour candy version of Parks and Recreation! It’s Community with higher stakes and broader comedy! Further speaking to its accessibility, Mohammed’s character archetypes are sharply drawn and communicated expertly by the performers. When Mohammed’s scripts allow these characters and performers to simply lock in and play with who we, as the audience, know them to me, look out! One-liners fly furiously, perfectly character-driven, many yielding abrupt and genuine LOLs. The plot structure of “a cyber-case to solve” serves as a simple, satisfying apparatus to hang ping-pong ensemble work on, and the startling clarity of voice the show can find in these moments, in just its first season, in just six episodes, was equal parts comforting and shocking. I enjoy hanging out with these characters, and it feels like the actors do, too.

However, there are a few too many moments where Mohammed’s scripts don’t seem to trust that we get what’s going on innately, discrediting his endearingly simple work with far too many storylines that tread water regarding “how a character behaves,” “what the team should do vis-a-vis the plot,” and “what a character’s backstory reveals about them.” Intelligence is smartest when it’s moving forward at a fast pace, but it too often wants to press pause, to zoom in and enhance when we could already tell what’s going on. The hand-holding of its comedic games and storytelling devices can feel so unwieldy and unnecessary, that the denouement of season one’s final episode feels like it should’ve come at the end of episode one. Just let these characters solve cases and deliver crackling jokes, already!

Speaking of “being confident in your fundamental storytelling structure,” there is one choice the show does make confidently that, while certainly precedented by other great television comedy, runs a touch into “why are we still doing this?” territory in our modern era. Schwimmer’s character is like a Kenny Powers, a Jack Donaghy, an Al Bundy. Namely — a blowhard who’s sure of his own (limited) power and demonstrates it loudly, stupidly, confidently, and often laced with selfish, casual bigotry.

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Image via Peacock

Obviously, we are meant to view this from a distance as objectively “unusual,” “bad,” “funny because of how idiotic his jokes about Middle Eastern people being profiled and penchant for calling short people ‘dwarves’ and sexist desire to sleep with female staff members are.” Mohammed’s intentions, I believe, are not to muck around in puerile POVs for the sake of shock, but instead to highlight how prevalent these POVs still are in our highest structures, and to illustrate their innate absurdity. But it can make for queasy viewing, especially when the character’s inner depths are revealed and we’re meant to view him with more and more empathy and sensitivity. At this present time, it doesn’t feel great to laugh at and relate to a guy so often uninterested in relating to those around him, you know?

I must give Schwimmer all the credit in the world, then, for making me laugh at and relate to him. His Jerry is unhinged in the best way possible. In these six episodes, Schwimmer reveals himself to be a brusque, tight, and utterly professional physical comedian; there are pratfalls, triple takes, slides across surfaces, all delivered with panache and intention. Jerry’s personality is far away from Ross’ sad sack routine. Jerry is aggression, action, the embodiment of a self-help book called, like, “How To Destroy Your Enemies and Climb the Corporate Ladder.” Schwimmer, brightly, plays these traits not with a lived-in comfort, but as a skin-first external coat that doesn’t quite fit right. He’s “putting on” Jerry performatively — and when we find out more about what makes Jerry tick underneath, it makes that choice sing.

While Jerry might be our Jeff Winger, the rest of the cast shines bright as his Greendale Study Group, proving this show’s second season (already greenlit) should lock into a more ensemble-leaning rhythm as soon as possible. Mohammed is such an endearing performer, his spontaneous, Loren Bouchard-esque interruptions and half-mumbles drawing us in with the smile and charm of a silent film performer. His and Schwimmer’s burgeoning friendship is one of the highlights of the season. Le Touzel plays the “frustrated voice of reason” with perfection, and I love when the show lets her have a twinkle in her eye herself. Stanness’ character could be one-note in another actor’s hands, but she gives her an intriguing amount of depth underneath the surface. For my money, Bayarsaikhan might be the breakout performer of the show. Her Tuva is enigmatic, strong, sharpened to a diamond force, punching us in the gut with her no-nonsense attitude. But as the character slowly reveals herself to us, Bayarsaikhan allows different notes and energies to creep in. The last two episodes of the season feature performances from her in ways both subtle and grandstanding that I’ll be thinking about for some time.

Intelligence is a sharp, crisp, and fun-as-hell sitcom, a show I have no doubt will keep tightening the screws as it goes on in its run. If you have the patience for its overly slow storytelling and its “ironically progressive regressive politics,” you will find a charming ensemble cast delivering excellent jokes with the utmost professional skill, and you’ll laugh, hard, often.

Grade: B

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Image via Peacock

Intelligence is now streaming on Peacock.

Television