The newest Prime Video original series, The Consultant, sells itself as a dark comedy workplace thriller, making it impossible not to be compared to Severance, AppleTV’s similarly-themed hit show set in an office where strange things happen. While there may be similarities on the surface between the two shows, it doesn’t take much scratching to see where they diverge, as The Consultant doesn’t wander into the realm of sci-fi as much as it attempts to conjure full-blown satire but is far less successful at hitting its target.
The main attraction of The Consultant is the fact that two-time Oscar winner Christoph Waltz stars and executive produces, and, to be honest, the show is nothing without him. That’s not hyperbole; it’s just a hard truth. Waltz is the only exciting thing about The Consultant, the only thing that keeps you watching, and the one thing that saves it from itself—but just barely.
Based on a novel by Bentley Little, The Consultant has Waltz playing Regus Patoff, a mysterious and odd man who shows up at a gaming company the day after the company’s CEO and main content creator, Mr. Sang, is shot and killed by a child who is visiting as part of a school field trip. Patoff declares himself to have been hired by Sang before he died to be the one to come in, in the case of Sang’s death, to run his company. Patoff claims to be a successful consultant who has turned the fortunes around at several companies, but when two employees, Craig and Elaine, played by Nat Wolff and Brittany O’Grady, start digging around, they are unable to find any information about Patoff. Their suspicions about him grow even stronger as Patoff’s behavior, and demeanor are as strange as his background is murky. Their lives are turned upside-down as they seek to learn more about this man, who he is, and where he came from, and learn even more about themselves when they see how far they are willing to go to find out.
A self-proclaimed comedy in the darkest and driest of ways, The Consultant plays more like a bad dream, never truly able to fulfill its deepest hopes of satire, as any deeper commentary it tries to make gets lost in the morass of story threads that the series lays down, unable to bring any to a satisfying end. For an audience, there is nothing more frustrating than a jumble of questions that never get answered, and yet, for The Consultant, unanswered questions seem to be its central premise. Everything is centered on this mysterious character, who he is, and why he behaves the way he does. And if you think you will get some answers by the end of the ten-episode first season, you will sadly be disappointed. There is a plotline in the show that centers around a videogame the company makes, where the players can never get past one specific level, and it causes them to go literally crazy with frustration. As I look back now, the parallel to how the audience feels at the end of the ten episodes is quite ironic and probably purposeful, something that some may find clever, others manipulative.
But, for most people, it’s much more enjoyable when a story goes somewhere when there isn’t the sense that time has been wasted going in circles, with unanswered questions accumulating. There is a genuine intrigue and a well-crafted sense of mystery at the beginning of the show, as the first two episodes lay a strong foundation for a gradual reveal, but each subsequent episode merely piles on the unexplained, as the audience gradually realizes the joke’s on them.
Series creator, main writer, and showrunner Tony Basgallop, who also created the series Servant, takes his characters—and thusly the audience—on a wild ride to nowhere, hoping to make some point about how much someone will put up with to get ahead. Sadly, it just doesn’t work. The stakes aren’t high enough (why not just quit), and there are just too many illogical and frustratingly nonsensical plot points to make even an intentional runaround worthwhile. Even if the audience can accept that Patoff is simply an agent of chaos and the enjoyment of this series is to see how one seed can grow exponentially in the world around it, there are too many other plotlines introduced that distract from that simple premise, which, if the series had focused more on, would have been much more satisfying.
Thankfully, the silver lining is Waltz and his seductively strange performance. Having won two Oscars for playing idiosyncratic and offbeat characters already, Waltz knows how to nail a weird and mysterious character. But it’s his creepy charm, a skill that no other actor harnesses as well as he does, that is so skin-crawlingly enjoyable to watch. Waltz manages to walk a fine line between a serial killer and a college professor in creating a character who is neither wholly scary nor wholly endearing. There is an aloofness inherent in his performance that, when blended with his natural amiability, distorts all ability to truly categorize him as either good or evil. Waltz can play his character like the static between two radio stations, close enough to make sense but still largely unintelligible.
Wolff and O’Grady’s characters drive the narrative much more than Waltz’s does, as Craig and Elaine are reactive, while Patoff is mainly passive, which also works, as Wolff and O’Grady are keenly successful in revealing each of their character’s slow deterioration. Despite the fact that their characters’ actions don’t make much sense in the real world, both Wolff and O’Grady resoundingly commit and deliver strong performances.
The problem in The Consultant is not in the performances or the production, or even in the writing; it’s wholly in the concept, one that gets caught up in over-complication. The farce and satire that are clearly the goals never materialize, as the audience is far too distracted by following each new plot thread to nowhere.
It’s hard to tell if any of this could even be answered with a season two, but it would be difficult to be excited to revisit this world, despite Waltz’s heroic efforts to keep the audience engaged. The Consultant bites off way more than it can chew, sadly wasting some great performances and an intriguing premise.