David Schwimmer, the actor who will forever be Ross from Friends, has a history of unfortunate Anglophilia. The first feature film he directed was Run, Fatboy, Run, the average marathon comedy that tried to turn Simon Pegg into Cary Grant. He was married to a Brit. A few years ago, he was set to star in a Channel 4 sitcom, Morning has Broken, co-written by Julia Davis and Nick Mohammed, but it didn’t get off the runway. You feel for these American stars who, having nothing to prove to anyone in Hollywood, are for seem reason drawn back again and again to the old country, as if culture is more valuable if it comes with clipped vowels and a patrician gaze.
Five years later, Mohammed has got Schwimmer to star in Intelligence (Sky One), his new workplace comedy set at GCHQ in Cheltenham, the nerve centre of British intelligence operations. Schwimmer plays Jerry Bernstein, an NSA liaison assigned to the cybersecurity division. Our first sight of him is in wraparound sunglasses and earphones, blocking the moving walkway at City airport with his enormous suitcase. (Minor technical point: are there ever moving walkways after baggage reclaim? Minor technical point two: why would you fly to City if you were going to work in Gloucestershire?) Jerry is brash, rude and arrogant, exactly as you would expect in a fish-out-of-water comedy about Anglo-British relations. It’s part of the national mythology: British spooks are dowdy but skilled, Americans are brash but well resourced. Good friends do not necessarily make good neighbours, at least not when it comes to fighting internet crime.
Mohammed stars alongside him as Joseph Harries, a hapless computer programmer who has followed Jerry’s career with admiration. Although it is billed as a sitcom, it is more of an odd couple situation, with the rest of the cast revolving around the Schwimmer-Mohammed double act. Sylvestra Le Touzel plays Christine Clark, the Judi Dench-as-M battleaxe who must resist the interloper from across the Atlantic. Eliot Salt plays her useless assistant, Evelyn, with Jane Stanness as frumpy officer Mary and Gana Bayarsaikhan as hipster hacker-turned-gamekeeper Tuva Olsen.
The first episode deals with Bernstein’s arrival, as he tries to assert command over the British office and rubs up against the other staff. It’s not unlikeable. The script goes along at a clip, but while Schwimmer’s comic delivery lifts flatter material, the rate of gags is faster than the rate of laughs. It doesn’t help that you can never really believe in him as a b*****d. That long helpless face is too familiar. You could find Schwimmer rootling through your jewellery box with a swag bag and you’d stand there with a grin on your face waiting for a joke about dinosaurs or a declaration of love to Jennifer Aniston. Still, we ought to be grateful for a comedy with a running time of 20 minutes per episode. In an era of 10-hour seasons that would be better as 90-minute one-offs, genuine light entertainment is a mercy.
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