Since Sean Connery lit a cigarette at a chemin de fer table and first introduced himself as “Bond, James Bond” in “Dr. No,” spies have rarely been far from the big or little screen, coming in all shapes and sexes, served straight or as spoofs. Within the space of a week, Netflix has premiered two such series: the straightforward conspiracy thriller “The Night Agent” and the cartoon “Agent Elvis” — a “double Agent” bill, you cannot stop me from saying.
Created by Shawn “The Shield” Ryan and based on a 2019 novel by Matthew Quirk (an Atlantic reporter turned thriller machine), “The Night Agent” is no worse than workmanlike but, also, workmanlike. It’s nothing special, nothing awful and exactly what many want from television, with action for its own sake — twists and turns and sundry threads tangled, untangled and finally tied in a bow. The characters are generic — plucky heroes, superior superiors, inscrutable politicians, eccentric assassins — which is not in itself a problem; it’s just that little interesting is done with them.
Gabriel Basso plays Peter Sutherland, an FBI agent we meet on a D.C. Metro train, giving up his seat to a woman laden with packages, then making funny faces at her child to telegraph his goodness. Spotting a suspicious person placing a suspicious package suspiciously beneath a seat, Peter determines that it’s a bomb, so he pulls the emergency brake and gets all but one person out alive before things go boom. This does not make him the national hero one might expect so much as the target of trolls who believe he had something to do with the bombing. (His late father was a famous traitor, and he is tarred with that brush.)
Meanwhile, Rose Larkin (Luciane Buchanan), who is about to give a Ted Talk, is signing papers that will fund her cybersecurity company. This character point seems designed specifically to validate the computer wizardry she’ll later be called upon to display.
We skip forward a year. Rose has been booted from her company (there was an incident), and Peter — answering now both to the president’s chief of staff (Oscar nominee Hong Chau in a blond wig) and to the FBI’s gruff deputy director (Robert Patrick) — is working the night shift in a locked room below the White House. Apart from drudge paperwork, Peter’s job is to answer a phone that “never rings” — except it does, and it’s Rose. She’s been staying with her aunt and uncle who — in the first of many instances where things turn out to be not what they seem — turn out to be the sort of people mysterious forces might target for murder. Under attack, they send Rose scampering with a phone number and a code — and the knowledge that no one in the White House is to be trusted.
Before long, Peter and Rose become a Hitchcockian couple on the run, though with less romantic banter, as if levity would somehow insult the grimness; but what banter there is doesn’t argue for more of the same. Still, Basso and Buchanan have some chemistry, and their likability is what keeps the series afloat through a succession of chases on foot and chases in cars, encounters in dark houses and dark woods, fistfights and firefights.
Given the job of filling a series the length of four already-overlong modern Bond movies, this all can start to feel repetitive, and when the dark plot at the back of everything was finally revealed, it seemed to me that the villains expended a lot of energy and spilled a lot of blood for pretty meh reasons. Then again, John Hinckley Jr. shot Ronald Reagan to impress Jodie Foster — the truth can be more banal than fiction.
Conspiracy theories have long surrounded Elvis Presley, whose posthumous sightings have made him rock ‘n’ roll’s Bigfoot. He has been brought to life again as a super spy in the bloody and vulgar animated “Agent Elvis,” which may be simply expressed as “Archer,” but with Elvis — a phrase I picture being spoken in the pitch meeting, after being scrawled on a bedside notepad at 3 a.m. (“Archer” writer Mike Arnold is the showrunner; the series was co-created by Elvis’ widow, Priscilla Presley, who also plays herself, and the musician John Eddie.)
Set in the early years of the King’s comeback period — it begins with the 1968 Christmas special — it finds Elvis (Matthew McConaughey) being drafted into a mysterious organization, TCB, which has regulated human affairs for generations. There is a seasonlong arc, which takes the action from Bel Air to Graceland, and from Las Vegas to Washington, D.C., but also to places Presley never went in real life: Altamont, California, Vietnam, Algeria and the Spahn Ranch.
From my perch, “Agent Elvis” succeeds more as a curiosity than a comedy, which is to say, I found it only occasionally funny — blood splatter doesn’t do it for me, I confess — but generally interesting, if only to see what scenes and references might turn up next. We get Howard Hughes (Jason Mantzoukas) as the agency’s resident mad scientist, with the emphasis on mad; Timothy Leary (Chris Elliott); the Manson Family; and the Black Panthers — there is some discussion of cultural appropriation, settled in Elvis’ favor by the appearance of Parliament Funkadelic’s George Clinton, voiced by George Clinton.
Some younger viewers may find the references to Melvin Dummar, cryogenically frozen Walt Disney, the Plaster Casters and “Easy Rider” puzzling. As to the elements of the series whose veracity any viewer might question, Elvis did indeed once own a chimpanzee named Scatter, though there is no indication he was, like the animated ape, addicted to cocaine; he and Priscilla did once try LSD; and by some accounts he had a beef with Robert Goulet (Ed Helms).
The series looks good, especially in its cartoonification of Elvis, all midcentury swooping lines and angles. (Robert Valley designed the character, and fashion designer John Varvatos received a screen credit for his wardrobe.) McConaughey’s performance, which is more McConaughey than Presley, is like honey on the ear. The supporting cast is stellar, and also includes Kaitlin Olson as the cat-suited CeCe Ryder; Niecy Nash as Bertie, who takes care of business; Johnny Knoxville as Bobby Ray, a “hillbilly genius” who more or less stands in for the Memphis Mafia; Tom Kenny as Scatter; and Don Cheadle as the Commander. Among the guests are Simon Pegg as a hallucinated Paul McCartney, Fred Armisen as Charles Manson, Christina Hendricks, Kieran Culkin, Craig Robinson and Baz Luhrmann, the director of the film “Elvis.”
The series was co-created by Priscilla Presley, which gives it the estate’s imprimatur, though what Elvis himself might have made of it, who can say? He liked guns and would sometimes shoot out a television screen. He famously offered himself to Richard Nixon as an agent in the war on drugs and communism, and when he picked up an award from the Junior Chamber of Commerce, he declared, “When I was a child … I read comic books, and I was the hero of the comic book. I saw movies, and I was the hero in the movie.” And here he is, the hero of a comic book TV show, albeit the sort often sold behind a curtain. On the other hand, he might have beheld the drug jokes, the sex jokes, the dismemberment jokes and insistently employed F-words and shaken his head at what passed for entertainment in 2023. We will never know.
‘THE NIGHT AGENT’
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17 with advisories for violence and coarse language)
How to watch: Netflix
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17 with advisories for gore, smoking, nudity, violence and coarse language)
How to watch: Netflix