Agent X. TNT. Sunday, November 8, 9 p.m.
Vienna, they say, is the spy capital of the world. That's only because they don't watch enough American television. Espionage has been a favorite subject since the very earliest days of TV, going back at least to 1953 and the gritty Cold War drama I Led Three Lives, with Richard Carlson as an FBI mole in the U.S. Communist Party.
They trailed off a bit with the end of the Cold War but have enjoyed a major renaissance since 9/11 in forms as diverse as Homeland's gripping examination of the utility of paranoia, Manhattan's thoughtful consideration of the ragged boundaries between national security and personal liberty, and the frank revenge porn of 24.
Now we can add fascist dementia to the list with TNT's utterly unhinged Agent X, in which a vice president played by Sharon Stone makes the delighted discovery of a secret article of the constitution providing her very own Gestapo. A good thing, too, since America at that very moment is threatened by the very thing the Founding Fathers were worried could not be contained by a due-process-hamstrung legal system: a Russian circus-acrobat assassin with killer thighs, "killer" not intended metaphorically.
It is difficult to understate the breathtaking and apparently straight-faced derangement of Agent X, which debuts on Nov. 8 with back-to-back episodes. It is produced and mostly written by W. Blake Herron, who did the screenplay for The Bourne Identity, an all-action spy thriller that moved at the pace of a runaway bullet train. Judging from Agent X, that's probably because there were men in white coats waiting for Herron if he ever pulled into a station.
Stone's character, Natalie Maccabee, learns that her new job is going to be a lot more fun than "a bucket of warm spit," in the memorable phrase of one of her predecessors, John Nance Garner, when the chief butler shows her a secret basement "Batcave" underneath the vice presidential residence.
"Tell me this is a wine cellar," she begs. That seems unlikely, as she must enter through a door marked, "I hereby swear to protect the secrets that lie beyond." (Apparently, there's also a secret codicil to Lochner v. New York that makes doors contractually binding.)
And, sure enough, there's the real Constitution, the one that says "An agent of unknown identity is hereby authorized to serve at the discretion of the vice president for the purpose of aiding the Republic in times of dire peril."
When Maccabee looks doubtful, the butler (Gerald McRaney, House Of Cards) urges her not to be fooled by all that Jeffersonian blather. The framers clearly understood the necessity of "judicious disregard for accepted legal formalities." And a visit to Chief Justice James Earl Jones confirms it: America's underlying judicial philosophy, he explains, is that "in times of crisis we take our hatchets and we bury them—into the backs of our real enemies."
A good thing, too: the America of Agent X is plagued not only by Vladimir Putin's cadres of thigh killers, but also the occasional military coup plotted by the speaker of the House, Mexican drug cartels even meaner than Donald Trump's fantasies, and any number of other scenarios requiring a kill-'em-all-and-let-the-ACLU-sort-'em-out response. This is the world as J. Edgar Hoover must have seen it in dreams following a triple-anchovy pizza.
Yet there's also a weird, schizoid Tom Swift streak running through Agent X. An earnest young Washington do-gooder, upon learning that her Defense Department fiance has just murdered the head of the CIA and is about to seize control of the White House, sputters, "You! Of all people!" And when the FBI sets about torturing that captured thigh-crusher chick, the agent does it by—brace yourself—smoking in front of her. Her anguished protest: "It is thoroughly aggravating."
How this nutball script ever attracted such a talented cast—McRaney and James Earl Jones both have distinguished resumes, and if you're one of those people who thinks Stone's acting ability is mainly centered in her aversion to underwear, check out her performance as a doomed death row inmate in 1996's Last Dance—is a question for the ages.
We do, however, have the answer to another question raised by Agent X. The actress who plays that limber and lethal Russian thigh crusher, Olga Fonda, is not the filial byproduct of Jane Fonda's stint as a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft gunner; it's just a stage name. Though I do hear they're considering an invasion of brain-eating Fonda clones for season two.