“We’ll take what we can get,” said Eric Rubin, president of the American Foreign Service Association, the diplomats’ union. “The truth is most Americans have no idea what diplomats do. Anything that helps people understand what it is that diplomats do and what our Foreign Service does for our country is positive.”
Some current and former diplomats even say it’s a good thing if the series isn’t too realistic. After all, as one journalist noted, a realistic take would require Russell’s character to spend several episodes just waiting for Senate confirmation.
“A show that was actually really accurate about life in an embassy would probably be pretty boring,” said Lewis Lukens, a former deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in London.
According to various media reports, the show tells the tale of Kate Wyler, a career diplomat thrust into a role she’s not quite ready for, in part because she prefers humanitarian work. Her husband, Hal, played by Rufus Sewell, has also been an ambassador, but his career appears headed downhill.
The show, billed as a political thriller, is supposed to follow Wyler as she tackles at least one major crisis. Her marriage faces challenges, which is believable, but so do what reports describe as her “political ambitions.”
Wyler, we are told, is rumored to be eyed for the vice presidency. (Career diplomats are not supposed to have political ambitions, at least not openly, but OK.)
In fairness, the show is still a work-in-progress, and its release date is not clear, so all sorts of plot changes are possible. In the meantime, top officials with the show have reached out to the diplomatic community for advice, all while being tight-lipped about their scripts.
Some of them — including creator Debora Cahn, an alum of “The West Wing” and “Homeland” — showed up at the real U.S. Embassy in London. They met with the staff and got a sense of the layout of the facilities and the many events held there, according to a U.S. diplomat in the British capital who is familiar with the situation.
According to a person close to the show, its staff interviewed around 60 experts during a two-year development process. They included current and former diplomats as well as military and intelligence analysts and protocol advisers. The show also had six on-staff consultants from the national security and foreign affairs realms.
A senior State Department official said that while it’s routine for the department to help filmmakers on projects related to foreign policy issues — the war in Ukraine, for example — it’s rare to see a show that’s focused on the department itself or one of its embassies.
“Our goal is to do what we reasonably can to inform their work, to highlight the work of the public servants of the department,” said the senior official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the topic involves internal department procedures.
Netflix did not provide an official comment for this story.
During their visit to the embassy, the show’s representatives “did sketches of the office, how things were laid out, so that they could be authentic,” the U.S. diplomat familiar with the situation said, adding that the show’s representatives also coordinated with security officials to get some visuals of the embassy exterior.
The show’s representatives had plenty of questions, mainly revolving around what the various diplomats did during a typical day. They also seemed well-aware that a career diplomat doesn’t usually get the London ambassadorship, the U.S. diplomat noted.
“I think that’s part of their whole premise,” the diplomat said.
It’s possible that Russell’s character getting the London job is the basis for the notion that she’s thrown into a role for which she’s not ready. But that idea drew objections from U.S. diplomats anticipating the show. If anything, a career diplomat would be more prepared for such a position than the type of outsider who usually gets the job, they argued.
President Joe Biden’s pick for U.S. ambassador to Britain is Jane Hartley, a prominent Democratic donor. She stands out in part because she’s a woman; the vast majority of the U.S. ambassadors to Britain have been men. She also stands out because she’s been an ambassador before — in Paris, another posting that tends to go to political donors — so she may need less hand-holding than the usual appointees.
The previous U.S. ambassador in London, Woody Johnson, is a prominent Republican donor who owns the New York Jets. The Donald Trump appointee’s tenure as U.S. ambassador was rocked by allegations that he used racist and sexist language, but a State Department office that investigated such complaints later declared they were “unsubstantiated.”
It’s unclear why Netflix chose to set the show in a relatively peaceful, posh place like London. Why not a capital in a war zone or another country that is struggling in ways that are not self-inflicted (cough, Brexit, cough)?
But it wouldn’t be the first time such a relatively fancy setting was greenlit for a television show about diplomacy.
Two decades ago, Fox aired a fictional show called “The American Embassy,” which also was set in London. It was pulled after just a few episodes, and from U.S. diplomats’ hazy recollections, was more focused on romance than they are.
During the last few years of the Obama administration, the U.S. envoy to Denmark, Rufus Gifford, was the topic of a documentary series called “I Am the Ambassador.” The show focused in part on Gifford’s fight for LGBTQ+ rights. Gifford, also a well-known Democratic fundraiser, is now the U.S. chief of protocol.
Even Johnson got a documentary show about his time as the ambassador in Britain, called “Inside the American Embassy.” That show did not receive much attention on this side of the Atlantic.
And, of course, there’s “Madam Secretary,” a show starring another glamorous actress, Téa Leoni, as America’s chief diplomat. It’s a favorite among U.S. officials, though not entirely realistic.
The U.S. Embassy in London is a vast, nexus-like operation that lends itself to plenty of intrigue.
According to a State Department spokesperson, the embassy includes more than 40 offices representing much of the president’s Cabinet, including the Commerce, Energy, Treasury and Agriculture departments. Diplomats who’ve been based in London say it’s like having the entire U.S. government at your fingertips, adding that coordinating with everyone can be a tough task.
The embassy also is a major spot for foreigners trying to obtain U.S. visas. That includes plenty of celebrities, such as rock star Mick Jagger. “He comes in once a year or something to renew his visa,” the U.S. diplomat familiar with the situation said.
Despite the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union, London “remains a financial, cultural, educational, geopolitical power. So it is a center of influence,” Lukens said. At the same time, he added, the inner life of any embassy can often be dramatic. For example: How does a U.S. ambassador deal with allegations of spousal abuse involving one of the embassy’s diplomats?
“Do you keep the family at post? Do you send them back to America? You have to do the thing that best protects the family or the alleged victim, while at the same time not destroying someone’s career without due process,” Lukens said.
The U.S. relationship with the United Kingdom is unusually close, especially on intelligence-sharing. That means it’s normal for many U.S. officials, all the way up to the president, to quickly jump on a call with their British counterpart whenever they feel the need, and they don’t always tell the ambassador when they do.
“It’s not like being in any other post. You’re not going to know every single thing about the relationship every moment,” said David T. Johnson, a former deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in London.
It may be funny to talk of the many parties the U.S. ambassador in London throws, but the envoy’s “convening power” is genuinely a big deal, diplomats say. People want to get invited to the U.S. Embassy in London, and there’s a tremendous amount of information that can be picked up during the gatherings.
Barbara Stephenson, who, like Lukens and Johnson, also held the No. 2 spot at the embassy in London, said it was important for the cast and crew of “The Diplomat” to get the little things right, even if the show as a whole is unrealistic about the pace and intensity of diplomacy.
The little things could include how a huge portion of American diplomats have advanced degrees or how they refer to the secretary of State as “S.” “The ambassador is just called ambassador, and people honestly do rise when she walks in the room. That’s just what happens,” Stephenson said.
The London-based U.S. diplomat said the show’s representatives appeared well-versed and respectful about the realities facing America’s Foreign Service officers.
Still, they also have to make a compelling drama in an ultra-competitive media environment.
“I’m sort of mixed on these things, because I’m not sure how useful they are,” the diplomat said of such shows. “They give the broader public this idea that government and national security and these decisions kind of all happen in these neat, 52-minute packages. They take away the idea that it’s complicated, it’s not easy.”