“FUBAR” is an acronym, originally attributed to the military, which stands for “f*cked up beyond all repair.” It is also the title of a new Netflix show featuring legendary action hero Arnold Schwarzenegger, arguably the biggest movie star of the 80’s and 90’s (both literally and figuratively), and definitely the most famous action hero who has ever, however implausibly, become the Governor of California.
The good news is that, barring some cameos, voice jobs, and guest spots, this is the first time in his astonishing 53-year acting career that Schwarzenegger is playing a lead role in a scripted TV series. The bad news is that the show… well, while you probably wouldn’t describe it as FUBAR, you probably wouldn’t call it “great,” either.
The pilot episode starts out promisingly enough. We begin in Antwerp, Belgium, where aging CIA covert operative Luke Brunner (Schwarzenegger), guided by his tech counterpart Barry (Milan Carter) in the all-important “guy-in-the-chair” surveillance role, is in the middle of what he believes to be his final mission before retirement. In this genuinely exciting sequence, showrunner and creator Nick Santora (TV’s “Reacher” and “The Most Dangerous Game”) gives us everything we could want in a glossy spy thriller: an explosion, a car chase, a hastily donned disguise, and a showdown with a bad guy and his thugs, all peppered with the kind of throwaway quips that seem to be de rigueur for all action movies and TV shows these days. Sure, the dialogue is a bit clunky overall; but that hardly matters when everything looks so good— more like a feature film, in fact, than a TV series…
… but sadly, it doesn’t last. Once “FUBAR” gets to the scenes involving Luke’s home life, the show begins to slowly unravel, devolving from “mildly entertaining” to “unimaginative and predictable” within a few scant scenes. We meet Luke’s wife Tally (Fabiana Udenio) and, later, his CIA colleagues Roo (Fortune Feimster) and Aldon (Travis Van Winkle), both providing what would normally be called “light comic relief” if any of their lines were actually funny. During his retirement party, Brunner is called back into active duty to rescue a deep-cover agent in Guyana from the clutches of megalomaniacal arms dealer Boro (Gabriel Luna). And who does that agent turn out to be… but his precious daughter Emma (Monica Barbaro)?
This “Secret Lives of Spies” premise, while verging on the absurd, has worked very well in numerous other similar films, among them the Brad Pitt/Angelina Jolie vehicle “Mrs. and Mrs. Smith” (2005) and the Schwarzenegger hit “True Lies” (1994), the latter of which which this movie most closely recalls. So it’s not the premise that lets this show down; it’s the dialogue.
The pilot is jam-packed with clunky, awkward expository lines clearly designed not to clarify things for the characters or to propel them into action, but to spell things out for the audience. For example, in the aforementioned opening scene, as Luke, disguised as a fireman, hitches a ride on a firetruck, Barry says into his earpiece, “Fire brigade has given us access to Antwerp’s Diamond District. One of the most heavily protected square miles in the world.” (Uh… I’m pretty sure he knows that, Barry. It was definitely part of the briefing.)
The bad dialogue might be forgivable if not for the show’s most egregious flaw, which (ironically) should, by all accounts, be its biggest asset: Arnold Schwarzenegger himself. When it comes to playing unstoppable robots or musclebound mercenaries, he simply has no equal; but regrettably, “FUBAR” requires much more acting of him than he can comfortably deliver— especially when he’s meant to be funny. Another actor in this role might have made the pilot episode more watchable overall; but then again, without Arnold, the show would probably never have been made in the first place.
Who knows? Perhaps successive episodes will be better. But I, for one, am not sticking around to find out.
5 crowns: a must-see
4 crowns: excellent
3 crowns: good but not great
2 crowns: just about watchable
1 crown: avoid at all costs