The first thing you need to know about the U.S. State Department, if you ever want to work there, is that most of your job will be uncovering devious international conspiracies while surrounded by hot people who all personally know the president.
Or at least that’s what the showrunners of Netflix’s glitzy new political thriller, The Diplomat, would have you think.
The Diplomat follows Kate Wyler, played by Keri Russell, a hard-nosed, no-nonsense career foreign service officer abruptly tapped to be U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom in the wake of a major international crisis. (Minor plot spoilers from here on.) She and a small coterie of her embassy co-workers find themselves tasked with preventing a bumbling British prime minister from dragging the United States into a disastrous war in the Middle East based on a combination of faulty intelligence and political gamesmanship (a plot that should sound familiar, in an inverted sort of way).
And there’s an entire quasi-rom-com subplot with some Veep-like vibes, with Wyler’s devilishly handsome and conniving soon-to-be-ex-husband, Hal (played by Rufus Sewell), an ambitious and savvy and insufferable diplomat in his own right. Oh, and another sub-subplot on the political future of Kate Wyler, who, unbeknownst to her, is being groomed for the vice presidency.
The show’s creator, Debora Cahn (a veteran of other Washington-centric blockbuster shows such as Homeland and the The West Wing) clearly put a lot of effort into injecting a dose of realism into life as a diplomat, consulting 60 experts, including current and former diplomats as the show came together, as Politico reported. The show has drawn something of a cult following within the State Department, maybe because shows and movies on the State Department are so few and far between. I polled about a dozen current and former U.S. diplomats for their views on the show to see what it got wrong about life in the foreign service and what it absolutely nailed, grading on the curve, of course, of it being a taut thriller that needs some artistic license to keep the plot humming along.
The short answer is: The show gets a lot of small details right, and it gets a lot of big details wrong, but some of that can be forgiven, because in the words of one current senior foreign service officer (FSO), “if it was truly realistic about life as a diplomat, this show could be boring as hell.”
Even as an outsider, I had a lot of questions about how much realism there was in the show’s first episode. How did Keri Russell go from being told by the president she’ll be ambassador to London to actually becoming ambassador to London without a drawn-out, eight-monthslong confirmation process by a debilitatingly partisan Senate? Since when do presidents pick ambassadors to Western European countries based on actual skills and experience, instead of a $2 million thinly veiled, pay-to-play campaign donation bribe? Also, why aren’t three separate National Security Council staffers trying to micromanage every aspect of the ambassador’s job at every turn? I mean, that’s what actual U.S. foreign policymaking is all about.
Still, some current and former officials say, there’s a patina of authenticity that gives The Diplomat more legitimacy than your run-of-the-mill Washington political thriller. For starters, the set includes Drexel furniture, the (in)famous and ubiquitous furniture brand that fills nearly every U.S. government worker’s pre-furnished homes abroad and was instantly recognizable to every FSO I spoke to who watched the show.
“The furniture in Rufus’s guest room, that was perfect—it looks totally like standard issue FSO housing,” said Jeff Rathke, the president of the American-German Institute, who previously spent 24 years in the foreign service.
The show also shines a spotlight on the ambassador’s number two, the deputy chief of mission. DCMs play crucial behind-the-scenes roles in managing an embassy and serving as a fixer and confidante for the ambassador. “The dynamic between the ambassador and the DCM in the show … it can be pretty realistic because the DCM’s job is really to help the ambassador manage her work and navigate all aspects of the job, big and small,” said Lewis Lukens, a former senior career diplomat who served as the DCM at the U.S. Embassy in London from 2016 to 2019.
Another aspect the show gets right, Lukens and others said, is how life in the foreign service can throw big wrenches into personal relationships. Ato Essandoh, who plays DCM Stuart Heyford in the show, has hit a rough patch in his situationship with Ali Ahn, who plays CIA station chief Eidra Park, as they debate whether one of them has to put their next big career move on pause for the sake of their blossoming romance. “That’s a very foreign service problem for tandem couples, this tension between ‘my career, your career,’ which one takes a back seat based on where we’re going to be stationed next,” said Lukens.
There are some other moments of realism that the show gets credit for, according to three current diplomats, none of whom were authorized to speak on record. “Keri Russell’s character has to put up with a lot of casual sexism. Nothing more realistic about FSO life than that,” said one.
Another diplomat gave the show points for realism on something else. “One thing the show got totally accurate was when Keri Russell angrily stuffed half a blueberry muffin in her mouth because her job drove her to stress eat,” this diplomat said. “I can really relate to that.”
Russell clearly holds foreign service officers in high regard, lauding their underappreciated work around the world in an interview with Stephen Colbert on The Late Show earlier this month. “They give up their entire life [for public service], they’re incredible people,” Russell said. (Though in that interview, she also erroneously said that they don’t vote).
So what did the show get wrong? A lot, as it turns out. For starters, the show has career diplomats such as the DCM intimately involved in presidential politics, scheming with the president’s chief of staff to vet Russell’s character for the vice presidency. “I don’t know any DCM who has a direct line to the president’s chief of staff, but even if they did, no DCM career FSO is going to touch domestic political stuff with a ten foot pole,” said one.
Russell’s character also gets flown out to London on a private jet after being tapped as ambassador—again, without a Senate confirmation process. “Where in the budget request did SFOPS approve private jets for career diplomats to travel on? Was that from leftover FY2021 or 2022 funding, or is that new to the FY23 budget?” said another current diplomat, referring to unintelligible federal budget processes that I don’t have the energy to fully explain, nor should you wish me to.
Then, there’s the operational security (or opsec, in government speak) snafus, with the CIA station chief, DCM, and ambassador all casually chatting about highly sensitive intelligence in the middle of the office instead of huddling in the bland, fortress-like Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility (SCIF) that every embassy has for discussions on the super secret stuff. “Everybody has really terrible opsec,” said Rathke—an issue that, for a U.S. government worker in real life, could be a fast track to a demotion, firing, or prison sentence.
Still, all that the show gets wrong about life as a diplomat is probably beside the point. “It is fun to watch as a former diplomat,” said Rathke. “Does it tell you something about being a career diplomat? No, not really, but I don’t think it’s trying to.”
Movies and shows about the U.S. military or CIA are a dime a dozen. The State Department? Not so much.
And what is out there usually totally misses the mark on realism in diplomacy. There was a very short-lived and ill-fated attempt to bring Foggy Bottom to Hollywood with The American Embassy, a 2002 show on Fox that lasted all of four episodes before it was pulled from air. (You can find the episodes for free on YouTube now, but I don’t recommend watching it because it is, even by 2002 standards, objectively awful.)
There’s also Luke Hobbs in the Fast and Furious franchise, played by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who gives a captivating performance as a State Department Diplomatic Security Service agent teaming up with a crew of car thieves to stop a cyberterrorist from starting a global nuclear war by driving muscle cars armed with rocket launchers across a frozen Russian lake to blow up a nuclear submarine in The Fate of the Furious, the 2017 cinematic tour de force that really put the State Department on the map.
Then, of course, there’s Madam Secretary, the six-season CBS show starring Téa Leoni as the U.S. secretary of state, who can magically fix vexing foreign-policy crises in neat single-hour segments, just like how foreign policy works in real life.
There are so few shows on diplomacy compared to the military or intelligence because “the reality is, we just don’t have that much action in our day to day work,” said Lukens. The day-to-day slog of talking, negotiating, talking more, then negotiating more, is undoubtedly important for U.S. national security, but it makes for bad television.
So where does The Diplomat fit into the admittedly small constellation of diplomacy (or diplomacy-adjacent) shows? It’s grittier and less hokey than Madam Secretary or The West Wing, it’s not as compelling as the hit Danish political drama Borgen or Keri Russell’s other top-tier spy drama, The Americans (though in fairness, what is?), and the plot lines aren’t quite as smart as some other political thrillers on Netflix, such as Australia’s Secret City or Norway’s Occupied. It’s perhaps the most realistic portrayal of life as a foreign service officer on TV, but given the dearth of options, that may not be saying much.
At times, the show feels like it’s trying too hard to be too many different things—is it a thriller with some rom-com in it, or a rom-com with some thriller in it? Is it about geopolitics and diplomacy, or how career ambitions affect a marriage? The whole feels a lot less than the sum of its parts.
Still, if you’re on the hunt for a more-than-dumb but less-than-brilliant binge watch with an entertaining plotline, The Diplomat definitely scratches that itch.