As if to leave no doubt who we’re looking at behind the grizzled beard and worn features, our first glimpse of Arnold Schwarzenegger in the action comedy “FUBAR,” his first-ever scripted live-action television series, shows him smoking a big cigar. Perhaps he had it written into his contract, and possibly the production budget. It won’t be the last one he smokes.
Created by Nick Santora, whose 2014 series “Scorpion” is a less comical cousin of the current entry, and premiering this week on Netflix, the series takes its title from old acronymic army slang for (to put it politely) “Fouled Up Beyond all Repair/Recognition,” and not, as one might think, “Feeling Unmoved by Another Retread.” Ripping a page from the execrable Schwarzenegger feature “True Lies,” recently rebooted into a not racist, not sexist television series, it stars the former governor of California as Luke Brunner, a CIA agent whose family assumes him to be an ordinary businessman — with the added twist that daughter Emma (Monica Barbaro) is also secretly a CIA agent.
Luke is looking forward to retirement. (Schwarzenegger, 75, is playing 65.) He has bought a boat, which he insists on calling a ship (it’s a boat), in hopes that he can get his ex-wife, Tally (Fabiana Udenio), to sail away with him. Tally, meanwhile, has been seeing Donnie (Andy Buckley), a man who is so obviously no competition he might as well not exist at all, except to give Luke something to obsess over and other characters another thing to mock. There is much mocking, and obsessing, among them.
But just when he thought he was out, they pull him back in, and Luke is sent to rescue an operative, whose cover is about to be blown, from the jungle compound of Boro (Gabriel Luna), an arms dealer with a private army and the philosophical bent common to bad guys in spy movies. (Boro doesn’t seem to have much of a vision, though, apart from selling a suitcase nuke to the highest bidder.)
And wouldn’t you know it, the agent Luke has been sent to rescue turns out to be his own daughter, who, not wanting his help and distressed to find that he has been lying to her all her life, is less than happy to see him. There is no scenario so dangerous in “FUBAR,” but people will find time to air their personal issues — or take a call from home — in the midst of it.
“How could you leave a perfect kid?” asks Emma, who strove to win the approval of the often absent Luke with good grades and violin playing. “And now I’m an adult still pretending to be perfect.” Luke, who is oddly puritanical about smoking, drinking and language, at least when it comes to his daughter, just wishes he had his little girl back.
To complicate matters, and underscore the generational theme, Boro is the son of a man Luke killed many years before, when he was undercover himself; guilt-ridden, he anonymously put the boy through school. (MBA from Wharton — that might tell you something.) Luke also has a grown son, Oscar (Devon Bostick), who is developing an app and, apart from a subplot involving his young stepdaughter, is more or less beside the point.
Backing up Luke, and eventually Emma — for they will, of course, be forced to work together, however much their egos clash — is your typical variety pack of agents, none of whom are particularly developed as characters, even given a good amount of screentime. (Some will get a brief backstory speech to indicate that they are complicated, even wounded people.)
Roo (Fortune Feimster) is good at math, and gay. (Her nickname comes from Subaru, which has a history of marketing to lesbians.) Aldon (Travis Van Winkle) is buff and handsome and called Pooh Bear “on account of all the honeypots he collects” — that is, he uses sex as an operational tool. Purely in terms of hotness, he’s a match for Emma, and assumptions will be made. (But see Jay Baruchel as Carter, below.)
As Barry, the team tech wizard, Milan Carter does make an impression, in part because he’s given extra character points: He’s “Uncle Barry” to Luke’s children, a superhero fanboy, and he gets a romance, too, with NSA import Tina (Aparna Brielle), a case of nerd recognizing nerd. But the actor is just funny, whatever he’s asked to do or say.
And then there’s the aforementioned Carter (Baruchel), Emma’s nominal boyfriend, who is as weedy as Aldon is buff — there will be some competition between the two — a kindergarten teacher with a thing for “Antiques Roadshow.” (Luke, whose view of masculinity has been imported from 19th-century Austria, finds him lacking.) It’s to the show’s credit that, unlike that of Tally and Donnie, Emma and Carter’s relationship remains technically an open question — Emma at least claims to love him, and he’s very into her — but there have been no steps taken to demonstrate any actual connection or chemistry. Carter just seems to be part of her cover. That is something of a point — Emma being no more truthful with him than Luke is with her — but one it’s hard to have any feelings about. Baruchel is likable, as always.
Supplementary grade-A comic talent includes Scott Thompson as psychiatrist Dr. Pfeffer, whom everyone calls Dr. Pepper (Barbaro’s imitation of Schwarzenegger in a role-playing scene with bespoke therapy puppets provides one of the series’ more amusing moments). Tom Arnold, who appeared in “True Lies” (both the film and the series), turns up as a happy CIA torturer. Adam Pally plays a jovial smuggler.
Erected on a framework of spy film tropes, or cliches, if you like, or homages, if you prefer, predictable in a good way or predictable in a bad way depending on how much or little one likes to be surprised, “FUBAR” is willfully ridiculous, but it also wants to be kind of real and even meaningful about family and what really matters in life. Luke and Emma will each grow over the course of the episodes. The action is well staged. But the series can feel strained as it swings from wackiness to sentiment to violence — as Boro, Luna is acting in an entirely different show from everyone else. And as a comedy, it isn’t all that funny.
Luke drives over a guard just so he can say, “He feels a little run down” — the height of the series’ Bondian wit. “You can scrape the barnacles off my dinghy,” is another thing he says, inviting Roo and Aldon down to the marina to see his boat — ship. “That’s it and that’s all” is trotted out as a sort of catchphrase — that it’s a line from the movie “Throw Momma From the Train” is pointed out, finally, leading one to suppose it’s only there as a nod to that film’s director and star, and Schwarzenegger’s sometime screen partner, Danny DeVito. (“I love Danny DeVito,” says Luke. “He’s so tiny. I want to put him in my pocket.”)
Although the series does conclude its eight-episode arc, it ends with unfinished business — which does promise a more original second season. And given the star’s global bankability — Netflix also has a three-part Schwarzenegger documentary, “Arnold,” coming soon — one can only assume: They’ll. Be. Back.
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