Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Richard Madden and Priyanka Chopra Jonas star in Citadel on Prime Video.Courtesy of Amazon Prime Video

I don’t think that we, as audiences of network television, realized just how lucky we were to have Alias back in the day.

The long-gone ABC spy series starring Jennifer Garner as a double (really, triple) agent was a marvel of twisty storytelling, layered characters, sharp emotional beats, stellar performances, idiosyncratic guest stars (David Cronenberg, Quentin Tarantino, Ricky Gervais), and surprisingly impressive action for a small-screen effort. Sure, the 2001-2006 series went off the rails in its fifth and final season, but its grand finale managed to tie up every thread in a satisfactory manner – and we’ll always have that all-timer of a post-Super Bowl episode, a high-water mark for small-screen storytelling before the Peak TV era came along and blew everything up.

The real power of Alias, though, can be felt by comparing it to the depressingly diminishing returns of its streaming-war imitators. Fabulously expensive, ostensibly prestige and thoroughly forgettable espionage junk like Jack Ryan, The Night Agent and now the new Prime Video “global event” series Citadel.

Reportedly the second-most expensive series ever made – with a budget north of US$200-million for just six episodes – Citadel represents a big, fat, superdumb bet for Amazon’s streaming service. And, according to an investigation in The Hollywood Reporter published this past fall, the series arrives to Prime Video subscribers this weekend after a massive retooling by executive producers Joe and Anthony Russo, the brothers who directed Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame. (Two of the Citadel writers caught in the creative melee? That would be Andre Nemec and Jeff Pinkner, both veterans of Alias.)

Whatever might have happened between the moment that Prime Video first cut the Citadel team its first cheque and today, though, it is clear that the series took the basic elements that made Alias so successful – beautiful lead actors, a slippery narrative full of surprises, exotic locales – and ground them all into a chunky, barely digestible paste that represents the television equivalent of a choking hazard.

In the three episodes that were made available to the press ahead of release, Citadel offers a spy versus spy story that starts off semi-stupid and quickly nosedives into unrelenting idiocy. The story opens by focusing on two agents belonging to the titular secret agency, a group unaffiliated to any one nation that is dedicated to protecting the world from evildoers. But after two of Citadel’s best and sexiest agents, Mason (Richard Madden, Game of Thrones) and Nadia (Priyanka Chopra Jonas, Quantico), are ambushed by operatives of a villainous syndicate called Manticore (any similarities to the plot of Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation are entirely … accidental?), the pair have their memories wiped and assume new, civilian-friendly lives.

Flash-forward a few years, and it turns out that Mason and Nadia’s one-time Citadel overseer, Bernard (Stanley Tucci), needs their help to save the world from a new Manticore conspiracy, and off we go.

After an opening set-piece onboard a speeding train that is neat in concept but sloppy in aesthetic execution (you can scarcely see which characters are fighting one another), Citadel finds comfort in the laziest of narrative devices. There are exposition dumps, eye-rolling twists, and the kind of faux-witty banter that must have had self-respecting performers like Tucci and Lesley Manville (playing a politico who would twirl her moustache were she able to grow one) texting their agents on the regular to demand salary bumps for their troubles. (Hey, maybe that’s why this series cost so much …)

Madden (who was such a rock-solid presence on Netflix’s Bodyguard) seems completely lost here, employing a terrible American accent and a face oscillating between two modes: eyebrow-cocked “oh, really, now?” and stony “oh, really now.” Chopra Jonas, meanwhile, cannot seem to figure out whether her character is supposed to be mysterious or merely vapid. When Nadia whispers the allegedly entrancing line, “I’ve been known to leave an impression …” to Mason, it will take all the strength of any Prime Video subscriber to resist yelling back, “Then make one already!”

If Citadel were a one-and-done thing – another pump-and-dump streaming scheme to distract bored suburban moms and dads during the laundry hour – then it would be a relatively harmless diversion, easy to dismiss. But because Prime Video is devoting so much energy and resources into this hopeful franchise (there are two local-language spinoffs already deep into production in India and Italy), then hackles must be raised before everyone involved loses their shirts (and not in the eyebrow-raising, six-pack-abs kind of way … though congratulations to Madden for keeping up with his Game of Thrones exercise regimen).

The good news about Citadel: Each episode is only 35 to 40 minutes long, a remarkable exercise in restraint given the current tendency toward inflating television to hour-plus endurance tests à la Stranger Things. But just like Mason and Nadia, you will forget all about Citadel as soon as its action fades to black.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe