Berlin Station. Epix. Sunday, October 16, 9 p.m.
Eyewitness. USA. Sunday, October 16, 10 p.m.
Looking at the schedule this week, it's hard not to see a metaphor for the roiling changes in television. The broadcast networks take a break in their anachronistic fall rollout, on which they spent hundreds of millions of dollars and drove dozens of marketing focus groups insane—and cable quickly steps in with a pair of high-impact dramas which, though cheaper and lacking any big name stars, are at least as good as anything the broadcasters have offered up this fall. And one of them you can watch for free on-line! (For a couple of episodes, anyway.)
USA's Eyewitness and Epix's Berlin Station share little but their high quality. Eyewitness is a conventional if extraordinarily well-executed crime thriller that grabs you almost from the first frame. Berlin Station is more of a slow burn, a grim, complex tale of spies on an existential treadmill who no longer remember why they got on but lack any idea of how to get off.
Eyewitness is adapted from the Norwegian series Øyevitne, but its premise—teenagers on an illicit rendezvous witness a crime, but can't report it without giving themselves away—is as old as, well, teenagers. (My favorite example is Pat Frank's exquisitely paranoid Cold War novel, Forbidden Area, subsequently adapted for TV, in which a couple making out on the beach spot the arrival of a Soviet saboteur but don't tell anybody, which nearly leads to nuclear holocaust. Talk about the wages of sin!)
Eyewitness gives the premise a very modern twist: The teenagers are gay. Lukas (James Paxton, Term Life) is a high school in-crowder who doesn't think his popularity would survive coming out of the closet. ("I don't wanna be that guy…nobody wants me to be that guy.") Philip (Tyler Young, When We Rise) is less uncomfortable on that score, but as a socially marginal foster kid, newly arrived at the small-town school from a drug-addled household in the city, feels he's in no position to argue. So when they witness a drug shootout in the woods that ends with four bodies on the ground, their lips stay sealed.
Yet the complications are many. One of the supposed drug dealers was an undercover FBI agent, which brings federal interest. The local police chief (Julianne Nicholson) is not only Philip's foster mother (which allows him to surreptitiously monitor her investigation, but also stokes his paranoia) but also a former big-city homicide detective with a harrowing secret in her past. Worst of all, one of those drug dealers wasn't really dead—and now he's searching for the boys.
Eyewitness is written and produced by Dutch-born Adi Hasak, who also created Øyevitne. His Hollywood resume is thin but nonetheless impressive; he's collaborated with Luc Bresson on a couple of thrillers (Three Days To Kill and Shadow Conspiracy) and created Shades of Blue, the startlingly good corrupt-cop crime drama that NBC used as late-in-the-year filler last season. Eyewitness gives every reason to think Hasak's got a promising career ahead of him.
His script for the pilot episode is a model of expositional economy that lays down a complicated premise in just a few minutes, then adds complicating elements one by one. He has also somehow managed to capture the Nordic-noir feel of Øyevitne without the by-now cliched use of bleak weather. The intrusion of urban mayhem into the pastoral small-town setting gives Eyewitness an unsettlingly claustrophobic sense of a village under siege. You may not want to live there, but I bet you'll want to visit once a week.
Berlin Station is anything but bucolic. Its astringent Berlin venues—soulless skyscrapers, neo-Isherwoodian techno clubs and harshly lit spy cubbyholes—are the sere landscape for this somber tale of spies who can't come in from the cold.
Produced by, among others, spy novelist Olen Steinhauer and veteran TV writer-producer Bradford Winters (whose screenplays cover an impressive chronology from The Borgias to The Americans), Berlin Station follows the hunt for a Snowdenesque mole who is leaking unflattering CIA secrets to the world.
But the molehunters are an anything-but-heroic lot. They're at least as motivated by prosaic personal concerns—fear of exposure of furtive lunchtime dalliances, career setbacks, aborted office transfers—as they are about national security.
They also vary considerably in their dedication to shutting down the leak. Danny Miller (Richard Armitage, Hannibal), the newest arrival at Berlin Station, still smoldering over his mother's death in a terrorist bombing when he was a child, is single-minded in pursuit of a mole whose disruptions of CIA operations, wittingly or not, aid jihadist campaigns against the west.
His old friend Hector DeJean (Rhys Ifans, Snowden), weary after a lifetime as both perpetrator and victim of intelligence betrayals, is more cynical. "The truth won't set you free," he warns Danny, referring to the CIA's motto. "Beneath one secret there's another and another and another, one big fucking mess of our own creation."
Berlin Station has its share of bang-bang, but more often it's a chronicle of the daily drudgery of intelligence work: loading and clearing dead-drops of messages from spies, flashing signs and countersigns, keeping the peace with the host country's intelligence service.
This last, in fact, powers one of Berlin Station's most important subplots. The CIA's relationship with Germany's spy agency has been strained to the breaking point by the leaker's disclosure that the Americans had a mole inside German intelligence.
That has complicated CIA efforts to persuade German security forces to arrest a supposedly retired ISIS bomber. The alternative: a politically explosive CIA kidnapping of the ISIS man. The dilemma has already sent damaging ripples throughout the Berlin station, including the abandonment of a blown source, for fear his rescue would tip other intelligence agencies to CIA plans. "Can't we, just for once, just for fucking once, do the right thing?" demands one of the CIA officers, to which his boss snaps: "You want to do the right thing? Join the fuckin' Peace Corps."
Fans of James Bond or Jason Bourne are not likely to enjoy the slow seduction of Berlin Station. Like the work of John LeCarre, it starts at a leisurely and sometimes bemusing pace. (In some of the earliest moments, needlessly so; television's affectational fascination with flashbacks contributes nothing to Berlin Station but confusion, though happily, they soon cease.) But sometime toward the end of the first episode, the show hits critical mass and turns mesmerizing and addictive. With Showtime's Homeland and its bipolar spook Carrie Mathison AWOL until next year, Berlin Station has a temporary corner on the dysfunctional-spy market. Buy in.