David Schwimmer Leads the Peacock Charge with a Veep-Lite Comedy

Maybe we’re tired of laughing at the ineptness of government, its cravenness, its blustering ego, its sociopathic willingness to play fast and loose with actual people’s lives in order to prove some rhetorical point to a few clucking co-conspirators. It’s not funny; it’s exhausting. Plus, y’know, we just got done with Veep, didn’t we?

I bring up that show because, at the outset, the new series Intelligence—one of the first original series to debut on NBC Universal’s Peacock streaming platform, beginning July 15—strides into the room seeming ready to pick up where Armando Iannucci’s blockbuster political satire left off. The series, about hapless dumdums working in cyber crime prevention for the British government, is created by and co-stars Nick Mohammed, a regular British TV performer who here gets to play around with the possibilities of something approaching auteurship.

In the first episode, he runs too eagerly into all that opportunity. The pilot of Intelligence is a cringe-worthily brazen effort to approximate Iannucci’s brash cadence, trying to whip up a heady storm of elegantly profane insults and gleeful nihilism. But Iannucci’s acerbic tone is very hard to mimic, and Mohammed—who here is writing his first series—can’t quite get it right. After that mess of a first half-hour, I was ready to call it quits with Intelligence, certain it would join the mostly forgotten ranks of other embarrassingly leaden attempts at military-government satire, like Space Force and The Brink.

But, as the show goes on (the first season is six episodes), it relaxes into itself. Mohammed and his crew get looser; the jokes grow sillier and less vainly determined to be sharp and prickly and zingy. The show turns stupid, which in this case is a good thing. Some of the pilot episode’s acrid stink still lingers in the air up through the finale, but it becomes way easier to laugh at Intelligence as it goes. Turns out we don’t need another edgy parody of governmental blundering and immorality; we may instead only require something goofy to huff at, while the institutions of the real world tilt further into ruin.

Avid to serve up the goof is the show’s lone American star, David Schwimmer, who at first glance seems to be running as far away from his most famous role, dorky serial monogamist Ross Geller on Friends, as another half-hour comedy will allow. But pretty soon, the show reveals Schwimmer’s visiting NSA liaison to be as inept as the rest—perhaps even more so, given his sweaty desperation to preserve his imagined American alpha-male status—and just as fussily neurotic as Ross. Schwimmer and Mohammed, who plays a junior analyst often treated like an assistant, bounce off of one another well, finding a lively call-and-response rhythm as one man’s brand of idiocy tangles with the other’s.

As is often the case on TV and in film, the women on the show are allowed a bit more competence and sense, an attempt at appreciation—look how dumb the boys are, ladies—that really just means they’re left out of the fun. At least Jane Stanness gets to be weird and wacky as Mary, an analyst whose bizarre home life is revealed in bits and asides sprinkled throughout the series. (Think Jenna Maroney’s fictional exploits with Mickey Rourke, only it’s Mary’s mother, Seymour Skinner-style.)

Intelligence is not the mess it initially appears to be, but I can’t imagine it will make much of an impact for the nascent Peacock. I suppose that doesn’t matter for the platform, though, as it’s really all about its back-catalog for now, until it can really start churning out the original content once we finally, someday stumble into a post-COVID world.

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