Review: Chaos 1×1

A surprisingly not awful spy show with that bloke from Primeval

In the US: Fridays, 8/7c, CBS

It’s been 10 years since the tragedy of 9/11. Do you know how you can tell?

  1. The date. Obviously.
  2. The fact that virtually every new spy show or movie that comes out these days seems to be a comedy – or comedy-drama

In the last few years on TV certainly, instead of the hardcore likes of 24, Threat Matrix et al, we’ve had InSecurity, Covert Affairs, Chuck and Undercovers, to name but a few. To that list – for a brief time at least – let us add Chaos, a show which at first glance looks like a very bad spy comedy but which soon metamorphoses into a surprisingly-not-awful dramedy full of action, crossing, double-crossing and mildly humorous situations.

In it, CIA recruit Rick Martinez (Freddy Rodriguez) arrives on his first day at work to find government cutbacks have already made his job at the Clandestine Administration and Oversight Services (CHAOS) redundant. His boss (Kurtwood Smith) offers him the chance to stay with the agency provided he agrees to spy on a small department full of ‘loose cannons’ run by paranoid genius Eric Close (Dark SkiesWithout a Trace, and Now and Again). He does and after they play with him for a while, he soon learns that they may actually be the only members of the CIA doing proper spy work any more…

Because it’s the law on US TV, there are no fewer than three Brits in the cast of seven: Carmen Ejogo, who hasn’t been in much; Christine Cole (as of episode two), whom you might remember from the terrifyingly bad Sky 1 Buffy rip-off Hex; and James Murray, whom you might remember from the quite reasonable ITV1 Doctor Who rip-off Primeval – he got killed by dinosaurs. Well, you would if he weren’t trying to do a (surprisingly acceptable) Scottish accent the whole time, anyway.

Here’s a trailer.

CHAOS is a comedic drama about a group of rogue CIA spies in the Clandestine Administration and Oversight Services (CHAOS), who combat threats to national security amidst bureaucratic gridlock, rampant incompetence and political infighting.

The team tackles high risk foreign intelligence missions using manipulation, deception and wit to succeed. Rick Martinez was dismayed when his dream job as a spy was eliminated on his first day.

However, CIA Deputy Director H.J. Higgins, a calculating mastermind and the head of CHAOS, recognizes Rick’s unique skill set and places him as an unwitting mole inside the department. Martinez joins the team under Michael Dorset, a psychologist turned CIA operative and a tactical genius motivated by pure paranoia. Working with Martinez is Scottish-born Billy Collins, de-commissioned from the British Secret Service and deported from the United Kingdom; Casey Malick, a 12 year veteran of the agency with an understated demeanor and the ability to transform into a "human weapon."

While Martinez’s instincts on who he can trust are constantly tested, he may have a worthy confidant in the new Deputy Director, Adele Ferrer, who seems to have his best interests at heart. Or should he rely on officer Fay Carson, an alluring agent and an expert at deciphering people’s "tells?" Attacking each assignment with unparalleled confidence and gusto, these operatives perform covert operations, exert political influence and eradicate all manner of evil – and that’s just to survive the morning staff meeting.

Is it any good?
So for roughly the first five or ten minutes of this, you’re going to be getting a very bad feeling about this. All its attempts at comedy as our hero navigates his way into the CIA are laughable – but not in a good way. It’s not until it stops trying to be a comedy, relaxes a little, and introduces the other agents that things start to take off.

In fact, it switches quite nicely into a proper spy show, veiled under the cover of the humour. There’s blackmail, double-crosses, manipulation and jokes about the antiquated equipment government agencies get to use ("Here’s your computer with Windows 97 installed… Look, when did you last go into a post office and think ‘My God, I’ve walked into the future!’"). None of the characters can be trusted (or can they?), whether they’re work colleagues, bosses or just friends. There are some semi-decent action scenes thanks to director Brett Ratner (although nothing more than that since he is ‘the averaging director‘).

The characters are all well delineated and likeable. We have our naive and patriotic hero; Cross is the master spy who architects the politics and strategies; Murray is the Scottish (is that an Edinburgh or a Glasgow accent there? Oh wait, just briefly, it’s English… and we’re back to Sean Connery again) charmer; Tim Blake Nelson plays a surprisingly prissy and singularly implausible ‘human weapon’; and Ejogo is the potential love interest, assuming she can be trusted. Murray in particular is surprising, since – accent aside, which to be fair, only wobbles occasionally – in contrast to his personality-less man-mountain Primeval role, he’s actually quite animated and fun.

With smarts, decent actions scenes, fun characters, few excursions into Chuck-like spy escapism and a nice edge, Chaos is a pretty decent show that deserves to do well. Unfortunately, it premiered on April Fools’ Day in a doom slot – Friday at 8pm – which pretty much assures it early cancellation, particularly with a 6m rating on ratings powerhouse CBS. Hell, it’d be top rated on NBC.

So don’t get too attached, but enjoy it while you can, I’d say.