David Schwimmer’s Return To TV Comedy In ‘Intelligence’ Pivots In The Wrong Direction

If Friends had launched in 2020, the show may not have worked as well as it did back in the 1990s. For sure (and no matter what year), if any of the five leading characters had been situated more dominantly, the show’s careful balance may have been disrupted, potentially with disastrous results. After all, Monica could be unnervingly controlling at times, Chandler too manic, Rachel too frivolous, Phoebe too goofy, and Ross too shouty and overbearing. Well, viewers will receive a plethora of David Schwimmer in Ross-esque mode (with added perviness and homophobia) in Intelligence when Peacock launches on July 15. Presumably, this spy series was meant to be a feather in the cap of NBCUniversal’s streaming service, but Brave New World (which we’ll review soon) fares better than this Schwimmer-starring effort.

Intelligence will be compared to other efforts from the Friends cast to pivot away from their main moneymaker. They’ve done so with varying degrees of success (Courteney Cox’s Cougar Town and Lisa Kudrow’s The Comeback being high points), but the show’s more comparable to Netflix’s recent Space Force (which happens to sparingly feature Kudrow). Here, we’ve got David Schwimmer instead of Steve Carell, seeking to edge his way back into TV comedy. Schwimmer, who managed to humanize Robert Kardashian in The People Vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, surprised many who didn’t realize that a talented dramatic actor lurked beneath the Ross Geller exterior, but the lure of harnessing some workplace-comedy magic must have been too strong.

That’d be okay if Schwimmer’s boss-vibe wasn’t laced with sexual innuendo, and if this wasn’t a “comedy” that lacked comedic qualities. As a result, Intelligence plays like Ross became a maverick NSA agent (named Jerry Bernstein) who not-so-secretly idolizes Larry Flynt. The effect is skeeviness masquerading beneath a Britcom label, and like someone didn’t think this through in the post-#MeToo era. I’m not sure if the goal was satire, but it feels like a misfire even that was the case. Jerry’s a nightmare, plowing through the office, changing rules, and making (bad) lewd jokes, but beyond that, he lacks human qualities. He’s a cardboard standee. Even when we find out about trauma in his past, there’s no way to empathize with this guy or want to toss him any goodwill.

It’s baffling to behold, and Schwimmer recently told E! Online that this was part of the plan for his character. It was a “challenge,” he stated, to portray a “conservative, racist, homophobic, sexist, pompous, ignorant, ultra-patriotic guy who’s come over here to try to grab power.” And I kind-of get that intent. Schwimmer intended to play the stereotypical Ugly American among an office of relatively civilized Brits. Still, the star believes that the show made Jerry “not only likable” but “funny,” and neither is true. The worst part, of course, is the lack of genuine laughs.

A few examples of Jerry’s behavior from the six episodes screened for critics:

– Jerry opens an episode while speaking at the head of a boardroom table: “And in short, that’s why I have to sleep completely naked.”

– A female colleague comments upon something completely innocuous: “It was very brief…”; Jerry hops into the conversation: “… in a premature ejaculation way.”

– A group of co-workers gathers to take a photo for the organization’s social media page. Jerry instructs everyone to sex things up.

– A female colleague admits that Jerry’s methodology is “rubbing off on me.” Jerry is faux-aghast: “You wish!

Yikes. And Jerry is hyper-belligerent, whether he’s cracking sexist jokes or telling everyone that he knows best, or yeah, all the homophobia. Sadly, it’s not as though there’s even any substantive reason for Jerry’s displays, no context beyond him being an awful person, and certainly, no lessons learned. It’s all simply a bunch of wisecracks thrown at the wall. There’s no humanity. There’s no humor. It’s aggressively hostile stuff.

For an unknown reason (there are suggestions that don’t make sense near the end of the six episodes screened for critics), Jerry’s introduced himself at the UK’s Government Communications Headquarters, which is like MI5 and MI6 but nerdier and focused on cybercrime (no fancy martinis here), where he recruits an computer analyst, Joseph (Nick Mohammed, who writes the series and is otherwise a competent comedian known as Mr. Swallow and made turns in Bridget Jones’s Baby and the Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie) for some sort of power move. In the process, Joseph, along with the female colleagues on the premises, get buried by Jerry’s baffling displays of toxicity.

Jerry’s pompous-shout factor overpowers the Joseph character by design, but he also relegates all other co-workers — Tuva (Gana Bayarsaikhan), Mary (Jane Stanness), and actual boss Christine (Sylvestra Le Touzel) — to the sidelines. A few of these characters seem mildly interesting, but we don’t get to know them much at all. Instead, Intelligence all comes down to the Super-Obnoxious Ross descendant being, you know, too much.

Peacock’s ‘Intelligence’ streams on July 15.