“We’ll take what we can,” said Eric Rubin, president of the American Foreign Service Association, the union for diplomats. “The truth is, most Americans have no idea what diplomats do. Anything that helps people understand what diplomats do and what our Foreign Service does for our country is positive.”
Some current and former diplomats even say it’s a good thing if the show isn’t too realistic. After all, as noted by a journalista realistic take would require Russell’s character to spend several episodes awaiting confirmation from the Senate.
“A show that was actually very specific about life in an embassy would probably be quite boring,” said Lewis Lukens, former deputy chief of mission at the US Embassy in London.
According to various outlets, the show tells the story of Kate Wyler, a career diplomat thrust into a role she’s not quite ready for, in part because she prefers humanitarian work. Her husband, Hal, played by Rufus Sewell, was also an ambassador, but his career seems to be on the decline.
The show, billed as a political thriller, is meant to follow Wyler as she tackles at least one major crisis. Her marriage is facing challenges, which is believable, but so are what reports describe as her “political ambitions.”
Wyler, we are told, is in sight for the vice-presidency. (Career diplomats aren’t supposed to have political ambitions, at least not overtly, but OK.)
In fairness, the show is still in the making and its release date is unclear, so all sorts of plot changes are possible. In the meantime, the show’s senior officials have sought advice from the diplomatic community, while remaining tight-lipped about their scripts.
Some of them — including “The West Wing” and “Homeland” alum Debora Cahn — showed up at the real US Embassy in London. They met the staff and got an idea of the layout of the facilities and the many events taking place there, according to a US diplomat in the British capital who is familiar with the situation.
According to a person familiar with the show, its staff interviewed around 60 experts during a two-year development process. They included current and former diplomats as well as military and intelligence analysts and protocol advisers. The show also featured six staff consultants from the national security and foreign affairs fields.
A senior State Department official said that while it’s common for the department to help filmmakers on projects related to foreign policy issues — the war in Ukraine, for example — it’s rare to see a broadcast focused on the department itself or one of its embassies.
“Our aim is to do what we reasonably can to inform their work, to highlight the work of ministry officials,” said the senior official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the subject involves procedures. internal to the ministry.
Netflix did not provide an official comment for this story.
During their visit to the embassy, the show’s representatives “made sketches of the office, how things were laid out, so that they would be authentic,” said the US diplomat familiar with the situation, adding that the show’s representatives were also coordinating with security officials. to get visuals of the exterior of the embassy.
The show’s reps had many questions, mostly about what the various diplomats were up to on a typical day. They also seemed well aware that a career diplomat usually does not get the job of ambassador to London, the US diplomat noted.
“I think that’s part of their premise,” the diplomat said.
It’s possible that Russell’s character getting the job in London is the basis for the idea that she’s being thrown into a role she’s not ready for. But that idea drew objections from U.S. diplomats anticipating the show. On the contrary, a career diplomat would be better prepared for such a position than the type of foreigner who usually gets the job, they argued.
President Joe Biden’s choice for US Ambassador to Britain is Jane Hartley, a top Democratic donor. She stands out partly because she is a woman; the vast majority of US ambassadors to Britain are men. She also stands out because she once served as an ambassador – in Paris, another position that tends to go to political donors – so she may need less support than the usual appointees.
Former US Ambassador to London Woody Johnson is a top Republican donor who owns the New York Jets. Donald Trump’s appointee’s tenure as US ambassador has been rocked by allegations that he used racist and sexist language, but a State Department office that investigated those complaints has later declared them to be “unsubstantiated”.
It’s unclear why Netflix chose to set the show in a relatively peaceful and posh location like London. How about a capital in a war zone or another country that is struggling in a way that is not self-inflicted (coughBrexit, cough)?
But it wouldn’t be the first time such a whimsical set has been lit for a diplomacy TV show.
Two decades ago, Fox aired a fictional show called “The American Embassy,” which was also set in London. It was retired after only a few episodes and, according to the fuzzy recollections of American diplomats, was more romance-oriented than them.
During the last years of the Obama administration, the American envoy to Denmark, Rufus Gifford, was the subject of a documentary series called “I am the ambassador”. The show focused in part on Gifford’s fight for LGBTQ+ rights. Gifford, also a well-known Democratic fundraiser, is now America’s chief protocol officer.
Even Johnson was treated to a documentary show about his time as ambassador to Britain, called “Inside the American Embassy.” This show hasn’t received much attention on this side of the Atlantic.
And, of course, there’s “Madam Secretary,” a show starring fellow glamorous actress, Téa Leoni, as America’s top diplomat. It’s a favorite among US officials, but not entirely realistic.
The United States Embassy in London is a vast nexus-like operation that lends itself to plenty of intrigue.
According to a State Department spokesperson, the embassy comprises more than 40 offices representing much of the president’s cabinet, including the departments of commerce, energy, treasury and agriculture. Diplomats who have been based in London say it’s like having the whole US government at your fingertips, adding that coordinating with everyone can be a difficult task.
The embassy is also an important location for foreigners trying to obtain US visas. This includes many celebrities, such as rock star Mick Jagger. “He comes once a year or something like that to renew his visa,” said the US diplomat familiar with the situation.
Despite the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union, London “remains a financial, cultural, educational and geopolitical power. 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 a United States Ambassador handle domestic violence allegations involving one of the Embassy’s diplomats?
“Do you keep the family at the station? Are you sending them back to America? You have to do what best protects the family or the alleged victim, while not destroying someone’s career without due process,” Lukens said.
The US relationship with the UK is exceptionally close, especially when it comes to intelligence sharing. That means it’s normal for many US officials, all the way up to the president, to quickly jump on a call with their British counterpart whenever they feel the need, and they don’t always tell the ambassador when they do.
“It’s not like I’m in any other job. You won’t know everything about the relationship at all times,” said David T. Johnson, former deputy chief of mission at the US Embassy in London.
It may be fun to talk about the many parties thrown by the US ambassador in London, but the “convening power” of the envoy is really a big deal, diplomats say. People want to be invited to the US Embassy in London, and there’s an awful lot of information that can be gathered at gatherings.
Barbara Stephenson, who like Lukens and Johnson also held second place at the London Embassy, said it was important for the cast and crew of ‘The Diplomat’ to get the little things right, even if the spectacle as a whole is unrealistic in terms of the pace and intensity of diplomacy.
The little things could include how much of America’s diplomats have advanced degrees or how they refer to the Secretary of State as “S.” “The ambassador is just called ambassador, and people honestly stand up when she walks into the room. That’s exactly what’s going on,” Stephenson said.
The London-based US diplomat said the show’s representatives appeared knowledgeable and respectful of the realities faced by US foreign service officers.
Yet they must also pull off compelling drama in an ultra-competitive media environment.
“I’m kind of mixed on these things, because I’m not sure how useful they are,” the diplomat said of the shows. “They give the general public this idea that government and national security and these decisions kind of happen in these neat 52-minute packages. They take away the idea that it’s complicated, it’s not easy.