In the US: Sundays, 9pm, BBC America
In the UK: Acquired by BBC One/BBC Three. Will air in 2018
Spy comedies are hard to pull off. All too often, they end up as spoofs – and not hugely funny ones at that.
But with the first episode of Killing Eve, Fleabag creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s adaptation of Luke Jennings’s Villanelle novels, it seemed like we had a rare success. Both stylish and funny, it saw desk-bound MI5 agent Sandra Oh (Grey’s Anatomy) realise that a series of murders were all the work of one female international assassin – Jodie Comer (Doctor Foster). While the nature of Comer’s job meant she went around killing people for most of the episode, it still had plenty of laughs: Comer’s mischievousness and little girl qualities leant itself to some black humour, while Oh’s lack of training meant her strand of humour stemmed from office and everyday mundanities.
What made that all work was it was still noticeably a semi-plausible spy show. Sure, it always had one eye on its locations, designer labels and groovy soundtrack, but it wasn’t outright comedy and it was prone to moments of genuine nastiness and realism. Comer’s chameleonic elusiveness was conceivable, and Oh and colleagues’ efforts to catch her were plausible.
Also written by Waller-Bridge, episode two at least carried on in this vein, with Oh setting up shop with MI6 to continue her hunt, while Comer continues to assassinate people all over Europe in an amusing manner, even while her handler, Kim Bodnia, begins to wonder if he has to start worrying about her as she gets increasingly out of control and cocky. It was a little less fun and stylish than the first episode, a bit more grotty office comedy, but it was still a good watch thanks to its cast.
Out of control
However, since then, bereft of Waller-Bridge’s scripting, the comedy has continued more or less as before, but the drama has lost much of its plausibility. While a trip to Berlin is normally welcome in a TV show, having Oh’s colleague David Haig stomping around a largely naked gay nightclub in episode 3 in single-handed pursuit of the hugely deadly Comer, while wearing jacket and tweed hat, was nonsensical. Even to have tried to have followed a supposedly top international assassin by himself, let alone dressed like that, is beyond extraordinarily silly. That might work in Austin Powers, but in a supposed proper spy show – and as a deliberate dramatic, rather than comedic choice? It’s fatal.
Similarly, the sheer lack of tradecraft on display is almost suicidal and less than even a normal person would do. For example, Oh turns up to a murder scene straight from the airport, carrying her suitcase with her home address written on it – something even someone with the vaguest sense of self-preservation, let alone MI5/MI6 training, would try to avoid. This kind of daftness overrides its stylishness, making it look plain stupid.
Episode four, however, did at least improve things and Darren Boyd obviously knows how to do spy comedy. Giving Villanelle a bit more backstory and people to interact with also worked and the humour was more subtle (albeit occasionally broad). Comer also got to play up her girlishness and unpredictability, making you remember why she made such an impact in episode one. There was also a return to spy nastiness. It wasn’t as good as Waller-Bridge’s first episode, but it was a decent continuation.
When it’s at its best, Killing Eve is both a funny and a stylish spy drama with a great cast. Unfortunately, it’s also very variable and sometimes so silly, it stops being even slightly plausible and becomes an accidental sitcom. Depending on the consistency of the later episodes, it could still be a TV great. Or it could be yet another duff spy comedy.
Barrometer rating: 2