The Pitch: Owen Hendricks (Noah Centineo) is a fresh-faced, 24-year-old lawyer at the CIA’s Office of the General Counsel, and though he’s only been there for a couple of weeks, he finds himself way in over his head, beginning with an investigation into an already chaotic “graymail” attempt on the CIA. by Maxine Meladze (Laura Haddock).
A former asset and CIA spy who was stationed in her native Belarus, Meladze is imprisoned in Arizona when Hendricks takes her case, and she threatens to reveal incriminating evidence against the CIA unless Hendricks can get her out of prison and back home to Europe. It’s a lot to ask for the relatively inexperienced Hendricks, who claims to have a passion for law but frequently finds himself jumping straight into the deep end, navigating murderous mobsters, untrustworthy spies, and fellow CIA agents that would rather see him killed than give him a leg up in his career.
Meanwhile, Hendricks leans on his roommates Terence (Daniel Quincy Annoh) and Hannah (Fivel Stewart) — the latter of whom just happens to be Hendricks’ ex-girlfriend — despite the fact that the confidentiality of his job requires him to leave them in the dark. He occasionally enlists the help of his boss Walter Nyland (Vondie Curtis-Hall) and fellow CIA attorneys Lester (Colton Dunn), Violet (Aarti Mann), Amelia (Kaylah Zander), and Janus (Kristain Bruun), but he can only trust them as far as he can throw them.
Created by Alexi Hawley (whose brother Noah Hawley is at the helm of both Fargo and Legion), The Recruit is filled with high-energy action and occasionally poignant drama. (The Bourne Identity director Doug Liman helms the first two episodes.)
But for the most part, The Recruit is mainly a showcase for its leading man: Centineo is in full action hero era, with an impulsive streak and a good helping of charm and charisma. Centineo’s breakouts came from Netflix films (particularly To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and its sequels), and now the platform intends to show what Centineo can do in an eight-episode show — beyond being charming and hot.
Missed Connections: The Recruit gains its stride from its mysterious plot: as Hendricks digs further into Meladze’s history with both the CIA and the Russian mob, he ends up in a complicated web of government secrets and untraceable threats. But the series attempts to round out the thriller elements with relationship-oriented scenes and arcs, and these moments often fall very flat.
Perhaps the biggest lapse here is the relationship between Hendricks and his two roommates, Terence and Hannah. A lot of the show is devoted to the frayed dynamics between Owen and Hannah in particular; while they may successfully explore the awkwardness of living with your ex in a platonic way, their interpersonal moments don’t feel specific enough, and it’s difficult to feel like these two ever belonged together.
It’s almost like the writers needed a way to get his “will-they-or-won’t-they” ex involved in the plot, so they just stuck her in Owen’s apartment to give her proximity. It’s one thing to lean on a relationship that doesn’t feel believable, but it’s another to limit an arc from growing because there’s no physical space for it to do so.
Meanwhile, Terence exists almost entirely as a bridge between Owen and Hannah, and beyond a few interesting details about his life and the occasional moment of wisdom, he contributes almost nothing to the emotional backdrop of The Recruit. These characters are definitely missed opportunities, and while their relationships kind of make sense on paper, their scenes are thinly written and stuffed with token tropes and clichés, lacking any of the charisma or resonance they need to stand out.
But luckily, all of the intriguing tension absent in the Terence and Hannah scenes is present in the frequent interactions between Hendricks and Meladze. Laura Haddock does a great “less is more” acting job, serving as a stoic, ruthless foil to Centineo’s boyish charm, and Meladze’s backstory is genuinely interesting. From the moment Hendricks meets her, there’s a charged energy between the two.
CIA Suspicions: One of the stronger choices made in The Recruit is the decision to portray the CIA, as well as Washington D.C. at large, as an untrustworthy environment where everyone will not hesitate to destroy their colleagues to gain power or favor. This makes for plenty of conflict for Hendricks, whose lovable attitude is dismissed as naivety, and whose lack of experience is immediately used against him both in D.C. and abroad.
The resulting dynamic makes many of the relationships in the show transactional; everyone avoids helping Hendricks to have deniability, and when they do decide to help him, he’s required to present something in return. This is best exemplified by Hendricks’ relationship to his more senior colleague, Amelia. When beginning work on Meladze’s case, he asks Amelia for help, and in return, she essentially commands him to date her.
And it actually happens, but throughout, there’s very, very little chemistry between the two of them. Hendricks doesn’t look uninterested in Amelia, but he doesn’t really act like he wants to be in the relationship either — it’s just one more thing that he has to do for his job. While their pairing is a choice that aligns with the cold nature of D.C., it’s not rewarding in the slightest, aside from creating more awkwardness between Owen and Hannah (which, again, doesn’t culminate in anything resonant or poignant).
Meanwhile, Hendricks attempts to lean on his other attorney colleagues at the CIA, Lester and Violet, though they similarly are wary of him gaining more favor from their boss, Nyland. While Lester (thankfully) warms up to the idea of helping Owen, Violet is insistent on finding any opportunity to damage his career. The tricks they play may work in propelling the narrative, but it then becomes difficult to care about these two — also, the clunky writing in their scenes often makes it hard for Colton Dunn and Aarti Mann to get through them, making it tough to believe they actually want to see Owen fail.
While the decision to isolate Hendricks’ values from those of his environment is a dynamic choice, it doesn’t pay off as well as it could. But what it does do is force Hendricks to rely on his own abilities first and foremost, which can lead to some exciting scenes. When he finds himself in sticky situations, he relies on his instinctual charm and litigation tactics to get him out — and most of the time, it works. Though Centineo is great at these particular moments, it leaves a great deal of heavy lifting on his part for more complicated scenarios.
The Verdict: The Recruit is at its best when mixing the unpredictable aspects of a spy thriller with the capacity for frenetic, inventive action scenes. Both Centineo and Haddock are terrific in these fight scenes, and the choreography is creative and engaging. On the other hand, the music chosen for these moments can often be distracting and abrasive — just because the genre calls for some high-energy tunes, it doesn’t mean it has to be scored like it’s a Dodge commercial.
The show also succeeds in its intriguing plot — there are a couple of twists and turns that feel earned and exciting, including a great cliffhanger in the show’s final episode. With the capacity for a nationwide scandal always at play, there’s a very active sense of desperation that each character operates with. Meladze’s detailed backstory as a secret CIA asset is given a great deal of attention, and the payoff at the end is deserved.
That being said, the series fails in establishing the nuance of some of these relationships. While Hendricks and Meladze’s tête-à-tête is appropriately complex, the rest of the characters are underwritten, unrealistic, or poorly portrayed.
The Recruit is definitely a Noah Centineo showcase, and while he certainly stretches his acting chops throughout, lopsided scripts only get him so far. Perhaps the biggest thing Centineo needs to improve on is not his ability to conjure believable emotions and responses, but his overall command of language. There are many instances in which Centineo awkwardly chews through his dialogue or puts on a subtle (but still noticeable) “I am a leading man now please take me seriously” character voice. Of course, these are minute details and take years to hone, but they’re important considering the type of actor Centineo wants to be. I’m not saying Centineo needs to practice some Shakespeare, but… it might help him break some of these habits.
Overall, The Recruit is certainly a fun ride with some great action and an interesting story. But it’s unpolished, and could benefit from better dialogue and more nuanced relationships between characters. Owen Hendricks may be in over his head, but the same could be said about the show’s creators.
Where To Watch: The Recruit premieres globally on Netflix on December 16th.