David Schwimmer makes his return to sitcom television today with the July 15 launch of “Intelligence,” a new comedy on the NBC Universal streaming service Peacock. Advertised as the home of programming from networks like NBC and USA, Peacock also wants to stand out as a platform for original content, and so today’s launch includes the acclaimed mini-series “The Capture,” a star-studded adaptation of “Brave New World,” and “Intelligence,” a six-episode comedy series that aired in the U.K. back in February. Fans will be drawn to the return of Ross Geller, but it’s really the baby of Nick Mohammed, a clever British comedian who wrote, directed, and co-stars in this series that’s largely about the unstoppable American ego. There are laughs here and there through all six episodes, mostly courtesy of the show’s creator, but it’s overall too familiar and too bland to stand out in the increasingly crowded streaming world. A relatively new phrase has been thrown around a lot in the wake of Apple, Disney, and HBO’s latest offerings: “Streamer Fatigue.” This one made me a little sleepy.
“Intelligence” is basically a workplace comedy, this one set in the Government Communications Headquarters in Chatham. The organization monitors and tackles hacking and cyber crime under the guidance of an effective, by-the-book boss named Christine (Sylvestra Le Touzel). An NSA liaison is sent to the office to, well, liaise, and his arrival turns everything upside down. Jerry Bernstein (Schwimmer) is all alpha male American ego, the kind of guy who has clearly failed upward a number of times, can be casually racist openly, and moves quickest when he’s covering up his errors. The relatively staid Brits in the office are mostly attracted to Jerry’s boorish behavior, especially Joseph (Mohammed), a socially awkward type who’s fascinated by the braggadocious new guy. Other supporting characters in the incredibly thin ensemble include the wallflower Mary (Jane Stanness), the snarky assistant Evelyn (Eliot Salt), and the charismatic hacker Tuva (Gana Bayarsaikhan). Sadly, none of them are particularly memorable.
The biggest problem with “Intelligence” is the sense that it’s an ensemble comedy without an ensemble. Shows like “The Office” and “Parks and Recreation” became modern comedy classics because there’s not a single weak link in their extended teams. While the cast of “Intelligence” certainly isn’t bad, they’re given almost nothing to do outside of Mohammed and Schwimmer, who dominates every scene. Part of this can be attributed to the limited episode count, but even the short seasons of Brit comedies like “The Office” found a way to make supporting characters engaging. For “Intelligence” to succeed, Tuva, Christine, Evelyn, and Mary need to be as interesting as our male leads.
To be fair, those leads can be pretty entertaining. There’s a natural oil-and-water dynamic on display in the styles of Schwimmer and Mohammed that just works. Schwimmer gets that this guy is one of those bros who often uses volume and over-confidence to disguise his inadequacy, while Mohammed is the opposite, often swallowing lines due to a lack of backbone. They have a really strong comedic chemistry, allowing their radically different characters to form a funny whole in the best scenes of the season.
“Intelligence” has already been renewed for a second season, and maybe the writers will use the time to develop the rest of the cast in a way that allows them to shine too. Sitcoms simply never really work if they’re one or two-man shows. Now that the groundwork has been laid with Mohammed and Schwimmer, let’s open up the stage to the rest of the cast. Then maybe “Intelligence” will be smart enough to stand out from the increasingly large streaming crowd.
Whole season screened for review.