Inside Story

The consultants

A new breed of advisers is helping bridge TV’s gap between reality and dramatisation

Jane Goodall Television 19 May 2023 1255 words

In the dark? Keri Russell in The Diplomat.

America’s ambassador to Britain, Jane Hartley, has had to interrupt her schedule over the past couple of weeks to deal with questions from secretary of state Antony Blinken and national security advisor Jake Sullivan. It wasn’t official business, but rather some curious probing following the release of The Diplomat (Netflix), Britain’s most widely watched show during the first fortnight in May.

As well as fielding calls from colleagues, answering journalists’ questions and authorising a short video response by embassy spokesperson Aaron Snipe, Hartley held a meeting with series star Keri Russell. Seeing they play the same role — Russell appears as ambassador Kate Wyler, mirroring Hartley as the first female US ambassador to Britain in fifty years — there must have been lots to talk about.

What prompted all this attention is a widespread fascination with the ambassadorial role. Ambassadors are people we usually only hear about when they appear on symbolic occasions, or are recalled or dismissed in a crisis. Everything else happens behind the scenes. So who are these people, and what do they really do?

The gulf between reality and dramatisation is usually a matter of intensity. Events in drama must be denser, more fraught and more personality-driven than in reality — though, as we know in our media-centric political environment, those in government can steer into situations that are more bizarre and dangerous than anything a showrunner would be likely to come up with.

But a showrunner as canny as The Diplomat’s Debora Cahn knows that the suspense factor depends on the engineering that supports the arc of the story as much as on the main plot points. The West Wing (1999), for which Cahn was on the writing team, proved that pace could be created by walking and talking speedily along corridors and that a killer sarcastic remark could make a more effective climactic moment than an outbreak of violence.

But that kind of effect calls for a thoroughly embedded familiarity with what happens 24/7 behind the political mainstage. Cahn, who was also a writer–producer on Homeland, is a firm believer in having the right consultants on a series and keeping them close to the action. The Homeland team, including the lead cast members, were required to attend “spy camps” with fourteen-hour days of intensive briefings by former CIA operatives, diplomats and security advisers.

Some of those advisers returned as consultants on The Diplomat. Indeed, says Cahn, the inspiration for the series came from a former female ambassador who advised on Homeland. This woman, with her mild and unassuming manner, explained how she had negotiated with warlords as bombs fell around her. “Those stories hadn’t been told and deserved to be,” says Cahn. Some featured married diplomats, known to insiders as “tandem couples,” like the fictional Wyler and her husband Hal (Rufus Sewell).

During the development period for The Diplomat Cahn and other members of the production team interviewed more than sixty people with specialist knowledge and experience, including diplomats and their staffers, intelligence analysts and protocol advisers. Six were contracted as staff consultants to advise on episodes in the making.

But significant inaccuracies and distortions somehow got through these filters. Hunt-the-errors has become something of a game on social media in recent days, with people with insider experience converging to provide verdicts on authenticity.

A former deputy chief of mission, Lewis A. Lukens, told the New York Times that an ambassador would not be involved in the kind of sensitive geopolitical security matters in which Wyler becomes embroiled. The reality is that top-level exchanges proceed directly between the secretary of state or the national security advisor and their British counterparts. An ambassador is not in the loop until a decision is made to provide them with a (usually highly selective) briefing.

But this fits with the premise of the series: a peremptory decision to appoint Wyler to the London post in preference to a more experienced hand like her husband Hal, who has held the position before. Some matters, it is suggested, are best kept from the incumbent — in this case, given the potentially catastrophic geopolitical fallout from the bombing of a British aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf with forty-one fatalities.

Is the culprit Iran? Or Russia, in a spillover of the Ukraine offensive? Or is there a murkier scenario in which blame is to be deflected onto the obvious suspects in order to serve more complex agendas? From a dramatic point of view, it’s a situation rich in possibilities, and one in which boundaries and protocols are likely to be breached as minor players refuse to be pawns in the game.

What matters from here is the chemistry created by the actors, and Cahn has assembled a superb cast, primed to weave sharply nuanced behavioural language between the lines and keep the paradoxes evolving. Is prime minister Nic Trowbridge (Rory Kinnear) — bumptious, peremptory and full of himself — a buffoon or a Machiavel?

Rufus Sewell as a wryly self-styled “ambassador’s wife” evokes Bill Clinton: three steps ahead of everyone while presenting as relaxed, cheerful, unconcerned. The chemistry between him and Russell is obvious, and much is made of it, but equally engaging is the dynamic between Russell and David Gyasi as foreign secretary Austin Dennison. Gyasi creates a figure who inhabits elegant formality and procedural sternness with apparent ease, but for whom there’s a whole lot more going on.

Messy humans reside inside these carefully etched personae. As Cahn puts it in interviews, it’s like the art of spinning plates — each hand has its own rhythm and momentum. Humour is a predominant element, manifesting mental agility and the quickfire diversity of perspectives these political plate-spinners must keep in play.

The psychological and behavioural aspects of authenticity matter most in a drama, and they can’t be captured unless the dialogue has credible points of focus and the action develops within real-world parameters. In that process, in The Diplomat at least, the involvement of consultants with extensive field experience has proved vital.

Succession, now nearing the end of its final season, has also depended heavily on consultants. In the latest episode, “America Decides,” showrunner Jesse Armstrong ramps up the ambition by simulating live presidential election coverage from the studios of a major television network.

On an accelerating roller-coaster, everything veers off the rails. A huge swag of votes goes up in flames during a fire in Milwaukee, and suddenly the impossible outsider is in a winning position. While the parallels are obvious, the whole point is that this is not the 2016 Trump election: it takes place in a parallel universe, but the stakes are just as high.

For Armstrong and director Andrij Parekh the challenges of this episode were formidable, and began with finding the right consultants. Ben Ginsberg, who has practised election law for thirty-eight years and been involved numerous game-changing situations, including the Florida recount in 2000, was well placed to advise on the procedural eventualities. On the media side, Jon Klein, former president of CNN and executive vice-president of CBS news, helped clarify the roles of studio producers, presenters and statisticians in building up to the vital election call.

Who decides? As the evasions and ambiguities of the players melt away in the heat of the moment, that question is too fierce for irony. Behind the scenes are everyone’s by-now favourite dysfunctional family of billionaire media moguls: Roman, Kendall and Shiv Roy. By the end of the night, they’ve left the plate-spinners looking at a floor covered with broken shards. •