‘Disbelief is not so much to be suspended as kicked out of town’
FUBAR review by John Winterson Richards
It is a plain statement of fact, no disrespect at all, to point out that Arnold Schwarzenegger's film career is not flourishing as it once did. It was losing momentum even before he took a Sabbatical as Governor of California and he has failed to restart it since his return. This is to be expected. His appeal was always based on his muscular image rather than on acting ability, and, while he still looks extraordinarily powerful for a man of his age, that age is 75. So he now has to rely more on his acting ability, and, while this has actually improved a lot over the years, the guy was never going to be Sir Daniel Day-Lewis.
It may therefore have seemed like an act of despair for a star of his magnitude to accept the leading role in a television show. In fact the social and commercial stigma of film actors doing television work has decreased over the years. Nearly all the big names have dipped their toes into the water, at least for "streaming services" - there is still a perception that appearing weekly on network television would make tarnish the star.
Yet the early signs are that Schwarzenegger's new comedy spy thriller FUBAR - from a military slang acronym conveying "Messed Up Beyond All Recognition" - may be just the shot in the oversized bicep his career needs at this point. It has been a big commercial success for Netflix, in spite of some sniffy reviews, and a second season was commissioned very promptly. This is therefore an overview of what is now Season One of the show.
Schwarzenegger made the very sensible decision to play to his strengths. FUBAR sometimes seems like an unofficial semisequel to one of his best-loved films, True Lies. Indeed, his True Lies co-star Tom Arnold turns up in a brief guest role, even if it is made clear that both he and Schwarzenegger play very different characters from the ones they played in the film.
It is in effect True Lies: The Next Generation. They share the same premise: a superspy's family is totally unaware of what he really does for a living. The difference is that, where the focus of the film is on the superspy's relationship with his wife, FUBAR is more interested in his relationship with his daughter - with the twist that she also happens to be a superspy, a fact of which her entire family, including her father, is likewise unaware.
This is indeed a very strong premise, at least for a feature film. However it lacks the legs for an ongoing show, or even an eight-hour limited series. As soon as father and daughter find out about each other, surprisingly early in Episode One, we wonder where it can go from here.
So this is where FUBAR actually demonstrates some real technical skill. The premise was only the hook. The show is really a character and relationship drama, with elements of comedy and action thrown in to keep Schwarzenegger's traditional fans entertained. To be honest, the comedy and action elements vary enormously in quality, but the character and relationship side provides a solid spine and is actually quite engaging in its own right.
Good characterisation is the key to this. At first most of the characters seem a bit cartoonish, but gradually hidden depths and complexity are revealed, and we come to care about these people.
Schwarzenegger gives one of his best performances as a very accomplished CIA Agent on the verge of retirement. His life has been his work and he takes pleasure in being good at it, so he is struggling to come to terms with his identity without it. He dreams of getting back together with the wife who divorced him fifteen years ago and still thinks of his daughter as his perfect little girl. It is clear to us that he is deceiving himself just as he deceived his family for decades about running a fitness business.
Anyone who knows Schwarzenegger's real-life story, or at least watched the documentary Arnold which Netflix put out at the same time as FUBAR, might wonder how much input he had into the script - he has an Executive Producer credit but that comes on demand at his level. Either way, he has certainly found the truth of his character and invests him with a surprising poignancy. His physical acting has moved on a lot since his days as the "Austrian Oak." His range of facial expressions is now well beyond what anyone might have expected of the Terminator. Some of his reaction shots are particularly effective.
His line delivery is, as always, in a class of its own. While he deserves credit for his deliberate efforts to improve his English since coming to America, learning a language in one's formative years gives one an ear for idiom and nuance in speech that is much harder to acquire later in life. After over fifty years with English as his first language, and four decades as a Hollywood star, Schwarzenegger still seems very eccentric in the emphasis, or lack of emphasis, in his speech. This is, of course, part of the Schwarzenegger image, even his charm, so that one wonders if he holds on to it deliberately now, but it can take the viewer out of the moment a little.
In many ways it is Monica Barbaro who provides the more interesting character as his daughter. She manages to sell both the Daddy's little girl who became a charity worker and the hard-as-nails field operative. What is even more impressive is how she implies, as we get to know her better, that she really is torn between these two identities. This conflict is summed up by her dilemma in being unable to choose between the beta male boyfriend who represents the possibility of a traditional family life and the alpha male agent for whom she feels sexual attraction.
Her mother, played by Fabiana Udenio - the immortal Alotta Fagina in Austin Powers - faces exactly the same dilemma, except that she is unaware of the Schwarzenegger character's true occupation. It is after all the classic dilemma of romantic fiction, most famously in Wuthering Heights, between the supportive carer and the transgressive wild man.
Jay Baruchel is well cast as the Barbaro character's inadequate boyfriend, even if the character as written is perhaps too needy to be credible. One feels that even in her good girl persona she could do better.
Travis Van Winkle and Fortune Feimster are Schwarzenegger 's rather unlikely junior agents. The former plays a pretty boy who turns out to be deeper than he appears at first, or at least not quite as shallow. The latter remains something of an acquired taste but gets a lot of the best lines and comic moments.
Their technical support officer, despite being played amiably by Milan Carter, is a misconceived character: he is supposed to be old enough for the Barbaro character to call him "Uncle" but young enough for him to be an immature nerd. It is not Carter's fault that this was never going to work.
Gabriel Luna gives humanity to the main villain, and it is perhaps a mistake to make it obvious very early on to everyone but the Schwarzenegger character that he is nevertheless a certifiable psychopath. Our hero looks on him as a substitute son and more could have been made of this ambiguity. As it is the ending of this promising arc is very disappointing.
Scott Thompson is fun as the CIA's operational psychologist, who turns out to be a lot less stupid than he looks. A scene with Muppets is a comic highlight.
The script is heavy on the one-liners, not all of which land. Those that do are reasonably amusing if never exactly hilarious. At least it turns out to be more than the one joke show suggested by the premise. As usual with dark humour, there is a delicate balance and the script sometimes gets it badly wrong. A light-hearted scene after our heroes have just killed people - even people about whom we are not supposed to care - never sits well. Are our heroes psychopaths? Are we psychopaths if we join in the laughter as we are evidently meant to do? A subplot about a very sick child seems particularly tone deaf, even if it has to be said that it has a nice pay off.
This is nevertheless very much the Comedy Intelligence Agency not the actual CIA. Its Sixties style bases accessed by long secret tunnels are not intended to be taken seriously. Disbelief is not so much to be suspended as kicked out of town, so there is no point complaining about inaccuracy or indeed the total lack of even vague credibility. Just accept that none of this is real. Happily the direction is efficient and everything maintains a brisk trot so that the viewer has no time to reflect on how many holes there are in the plot and how the characters routinely do what no sane human being, never mind a highly trained professional, would ever do in real life.
Indeed the show is perhaps best appreciated as a satire on the whole spy action genre, even if one doubts that was the original idea. The truth is that there is very little action in the deliberately discreet process of espionage, and FUBAR is no more absurd than Bond or Bourne or the whole cult of the "superspy" itself. If you take in on those terms, and you are just looking for something to watch as you relax with a beer at the end of a day, you might find it a lot better than you expected.
Published on July 6th, 2023. Written by John Winterson Richards for Television Heaven.