For a show that reportedly cost $300 million to make, boasts beloved stars like Priyanka Chopra Jonas, Richard Madden, Stanley Tucci, and Lesley Manville, comes from the Russo Brothers with ambitious plans for a global chapters in the same universe, AND offers the ability to buy the same clothes worn by the star at the click of an Amazon button, you'd think Prime Video's sleek, futuristic adventure Citadel was a sure thing. But critics mostly panned it, and audience scores on review aggregator sites like Metacritic are ugly (a lowly 3.2 as of this writing). With all the cool and flashy ingredients, we expected audiences would at least go along for the ride. The thing is, despite the poor reviews… they are? Just maybe not in America. Not to get all Citadel on you, but maybe the truth is a myth (don't think about this phrase too much, your brain might explode out of your ears like confetti poppers).
Take for instance the fact that Amazon's renewed this puppy for a second season, citing its performance as the second-most watched Amazon original series outside of the U.S., and fourth most watched worldwide, according to Deadline. As of today, it's still the No. 1 Prime Video series in more than 50 countries, despite being released over a month ago, according to data from Flixpatrol. What's more, executive producer Joe Russo is even coming forward to direct each of these new episodes, suggesting the Citadel team sees promise in the property. (Russo — who co-directed the second highest grossing film of all-time, Avengers: Endgame — didn't direct any of the Season 1 episodes, which were all directed by Newton Thomas Sigel and Jessica Yu.)
Which is to say, the streamer seems happy with the target they've hit. Head of Amazon and MGM Studios Jennifer Salke even states that their goal all along was to reach international audiences with some original IP and by all accounts it appears Citadel has done just that. What's more, stars Priyanka Chopra Jonas and Richard Madden are arguably more famous on the world stage, supporting the angle that Citadel was never meant to live its full life confined to American airwaves.
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According to executive producer Anthony Russo, the idea from the beginning was to establish a "mothership" U.S.-based show, as well as foreign-language spin-offs that tie into the whole universe. The first of its global expansion series, Citadel:Diana, is already looking pretty cool, and stars another international actress, Matilde De Angelis (The Undoing). A second spin-off set in India is also in the works. "We are programming for over 250 million households across the entire globe," Salke said in this Hollywood Reporter story describing Amazon's overall curative philosophy - or absence of. (P.S.: This is exactly something Manticore fixer Dhalia would utter.) "The proof exists that the giant tentpole shows are driving people to subscribe to Prime," says the executive. Welp there it is, right?
If you don't go on Internet or order Bezos boxes, here's a Citadel primer: The series, which just completed its six-episode run with a juicy cliffhager, centers on a futuristic spy organization called Citadel and their globetrotting, cat-and-mouse with equally futuristic big bad organization Manticore. The hot super-spies bearing the brunt of all this are Mason Kane (Madden), Nina Sinh (Chopra Jonas), and their handler Bernard Orlick (Tucci). Their missions and anti-missions are high-concept to the fun tune of illuminati tales and James Bond plots and, okay yes, Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons. The humans on all sides of this have messy personal relationships with one another, there's a bunch of cool tech and many soapy surprises — amnesia! moles! secret relationships! — to keep us all on our toes.
With each episode leveling out at a respectful 42-ish minutes, and plenty of twists and espionage bells-and-whistles, there's not a lot of fat here, especially in a series only six episodes long. The result is a show that doesn't take your time for granted and goes down easy. Be it an emotional turn of the screw or a pulse-bounding bomb sequence, the stakes are clearly laid out the same way a hospital show might have a character translate medical jargon for the layman audience. No viewer gets left behind, and whether you see that as a positive or not depends on how busy the rest of your day is. On the streamer's side though, this is important: It's one thing to hook an audience, it's another to demonstrate a positive rate of completion. With such a short ask of time per episode — coincidentally closer to that of a commercially-interrupted broadcast television — and per season, Citadel appears poised for successful engagement, even if the stats are padded thanks to the short season. (For reference, only 37% of viewers finished the incredibly expensive eight-episode The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power).
Another element working towards the show's international success is its action. Seemingly tapping into their Extraction mode, the Russo brothers pump in at least one really cool action sequence per installment, on par with a fun video game mission. Ski-shootouts, submarine hijackings, and close-quarters combat that would make John Wick nod with stoic, bloody respect. Speaking of John Wick, one can't ignore the influence here. Spies in the Citadel-space are aspirational in every respect. Tailor-made suits, hanging in gorgeous locales, multilingual fluency — perhaps another reason audiences showed up here: A 42-minute vacation on the shoulders of the most beautiful, capable individuals in the world.
Where the action dips, the personal relationships among the spies — both villainous and otherwise are intertwined, creating a satisfying history of ex-lovers, juicy secrets, and double-crosses worthy of a Vanderpump Rules-iverse. And where the spy format has no issues retreading familiar territory, the futuristic element swoops in to keep things fresh along the way with the ability to "backstop" spy brains into full memory vacancy, bad guys able to drill directly into a person's neural knowledge bank, and some bigger questions about identity floated around for a potential bigger investigation down the line, on a sprawling global scale.
All this to say, as a spy show — and more importantly as popular entertainment — it achieves its goals: Keep the ball in the air, root the story every once in a while in something character-driven like Mason Kane and Nina Sinh's on-again-off-again romance via cat-and-mouse style mounting doubts, then finish it all with a delicious setup concerning our protagonist and all the spies who love him.
Look, it's impossible to logic one's way into liking Citadel. To be fair and thorough, the CGI kind of sucks in the way that all CGI sucks if you think it sucks (I do). Like, a digital human body is never gonna look as cool bouncing off a submarine hull as a flesh-n-blood stuntman jacked up on painkillers will, all taking one for the Arts. Call it the uncanny valley, or the deep-born knowledge that if any kind of onscreen action is possible, then the stakes of the movement feel unearned. Maybe I'm just an old man shaking my fist at a computer-generated cloud here. Admittedly a race to the bottom benefits no one, but hear me out.
If this show premiered out of nowhere, and we knew nothing about its troubled production or hefty price tag, there's a good chance it would be another piece of popcorn entertainment for the masses. Also, for the offline crowd it sounds like it currently is a pretty cool show with a lot of familiar elements and hot actors doing cool stuff. So maybe the expectation fueled by the money involved is the issue. Not a crazy assumption: you put big dollars into something you expect to see a return, no?
If nothing else, maybe we can stop salivating over the idea that big money guarantees "the best." This show is far from that. But much like the buried voice in Mason Kane's soul telling him who he really is, there's a mass-market, for-every-corner-of-the-globe show inside Citadel. And like a seasoned spymaster playing chess with our living rooms around the globe, it sounds like that's pretty much the show Amazon aimed for.
The full first season of Citadel is available on Amazon Prime.