“We’ll take whatever we can get,” said Eric Rubin, president of the American Foreign Service Association, the diplomats’ union. “The truth is that most Americans don’t know what diplomats do. Anything that helps people understand what diplomats do and what our Foreign Service does for our country is positive.”
Even some current and former diplomats say it’s a good thing if the series isn’t too realistic. After all, a journalist mentionedA realistic take would require Russell’s character to spend several episodes just for Senate confirmation.
“A really accurate show about embassy life would probably be very boring,” said Louis Lukens, former deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in London.
According to various media reports, the show tells the story of Kate Wyler, a career diplomat thrust into a role for which she is not fully prepared, as she prefers humanitarian work. Her husband, Hal, played by Rufus Sewell, has also become an ambassador, but his career seems to be going downhill.
The show, billed as a political thriller, is expected to follow Wyler as she faces at least one major crisis. Her marriage faces challenges, which is believable, but reports describe it as her “political ambitions”.
Wyler, we’re told, is rumored to have eyes for the vice president. (Career diplomats shouldn’t have political ambitions, at least not openly, but okay.)
In fairness, the show is still a work-in-progress, and its release date is unclear, so all sorts of plot changes are possible. Meanwhile, the show’s top executives have reached out to the diplomatic community for advice, while remaining tight-lipped about their script.
Some of them — including producer Deborah Kahn, an alumnus of “The West Wing” and “Homeland” — showed up at the actual U.S. Embassy in London. They met with staff and got a feel for the layout of the facilities and the many events held there, according to a US diplomat based in the British capital who is familiar with the situation.
According to a person close to the show, its staff interviewed about 60 experts during the two-year development process. They included current and former diplomats as well as military and intelligence analysts and protocol advisers. Also on the program were six on-staff advisers from the National Security and Foreign Affairs sectors.
A senior State Department official said that while the department routinely helps filmmakers with projects related to foreign policy issues — the war in Ukraine, for example — it’s rare to see a show that focuses on the department or one of its embassies.
“Our goal is to expose the work of the civil servants of the department, to do what we can reasonably do to expose the work of the department’s employees,” said the senior official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the matter involves the procedures of the internal department.
Netflix did not provide an official comment for this story.
During the visit to the embassy, show representatives “made sketches of the office, how things were laid out, so they could be authentic,” said a US diplomat familiar with the situation, adding that show representatives also coordinated with security officials. To get some views of the embassy exterior.
Delegates at the event had many questions, mainly revolving around what the various diplomats did on a typical day. They were also well aware that career diplomats do not usually get the London ambassadorship, the US diplomat noted.
“I think that’s part of their whole base,” the diplomat said.
It’s possible that Russell’s character getting a job in London is based on the notion that he’s been thrown into a role he’s not ready for. But that idea was objected to by American diplomats who expected the program. If anything, a career diplomat is generally more prepared for such a position than the kind of outsider who gets the job, they argued.
President Joe Biden’s pick for US ambassador to Britain is Jane Hartley, a prominent Democratic donor. She stands out in part because she is a woman; Most of the American ambassadors to the UK are men. She also stands out because she’s been ambassador before — in Paris, another posting that goes to political donors — so she’ll need less hand-holding than typical appointments.
Woody Johnson, the former US ambassador to London, is a prominent Republican donor who owns the New York Jets. Donald Trump’s tenure as US ambassador has been rocked by accusations that he used racist and sexist language, but the State Department office that investigates such complaints later declared them to be “unsubstantiated”.
It’s unclear why Netflix chose to set the show in a relatively quiet, posh place like London. Whether the capital is in a war zone or another country that is itself struggling badly (the coughBrexit, the cough)?
But this isn’t the first time such a relatively fancy setting has been greenlit for a television show about diplomacy.
Two decades ago, Fox aired a fictional show called “The American Embassy,” which was also set in London. It was pulled after a few episodes, and from the hazy recollections of American diplomats, focused more on romance than them.
During the last few years of the Obama administration, the U.S. ambassador to Denmark, Rufus Gifford, was the subject of a documentary series called “I Am the Ambassador.” The show focused on Gifford’s fight for LGBTQ+ rights. Gifford, a prominent Democratic fundraiser, is now the US head of protocol.
Johnson even got a documentary program about his time as ambassador to Britain, called “Inside the American Embassy.” That show didn’t get much attention on this side of the Atlantic.
And, of course, there’s “Madam Secretary,” a show starring another glamorous actress, Tia Leoni, as America’s chief diplomat. This is a favorite among US officials, although not entirely realistic.
The American Embassy in London is a massive, Nexus-like operation that lends itself to many intrigues.
According to a State Department spokesman, the embassy houses more than 40 offices representing most of the president’s cabinet, including the departments of Commerce, Energy, Treasury and Agriculture. Diplomats in London say that while it’s like having the entire US government at your fingertips, coordinating with everyone can be a difficult task.
The embassy is also the main location for foreigners seeking to obtain a US visa. This includes many celebrities, such as rock star Mick Jagger. “He comes once a year or so to renew his visa,” said a US diplomat familiar with the situation.
Despite the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union, London “remains an economic, cultural, educational, geopolitical powerhouse. So it’s a center of influence,” Lukens said. At the same time, he added, the inner life of any embassy can often be dramatic. For example: How does the US ambassador handle allegations of spousal abuse involving one of the embassy’s diplomats?
“Do you keep the family in the post? Do you send them back to America? You have to do what best protects the family or the alleged victim, while at the same time not destroying someone’s career without due process,” Lukens said.
America’s relationship with the United Kingdom is unusually close, particularly in intelligence sharing. This means that it’s common for many US officials, all the way up to the president, to jump on the phone with their British counterpart when they feel the need, and they don’t always say the same to the ambassador.
“It’s not like being in any other position. You don’t always know everything about a relationship,” David T. said Johnson, former deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in London.
It may be funny to talk about the many aspects thrown by the US ambassador in London, but the ambassador’s “necessary power” is a really big deal, diplomats say. People want to be invited to the American Embassy in London, and there is a lot of information that can be picked up at the meetings.
Barbara Stephenson, who, like Lukens and Johnson, is No. 2 at the embassy in London, said it was important for the cast and crew of “The Diplomat” to get the little things right, even as a show. The speed and intensity of all diplomacy is unrealistic.
Small things might include how the bulk of US diplomats have advanced degrees or how they refer to the Secretary of State as “S.” “An ambassador is just an ambassador, and when he walks into a room, people literally wake up. That’s just what happens,” Stephenson said.
A U.S. diplomat based in London said the show’s representatives appeared well-informed and respectful of the realities faced by U.S. Foreign Service officers.
Still, they must also make a compelling play in an ultra-competitive media environment.
“I’m mixed on these things, because I’m not sure how useful they are,” the diplomat said of such programs. “They give the general public the idea that government and national security and all these decisions are made in these neat, 52-minute packages. They take away the idea that it’s complicated, it’s not easy.”