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“The Regime” reviewed

The Regime is a political satire that, too often, fails to probe its targets at a level deeper than “Autocrats are insulated from the people they rule and are therefore usually bad.” Series creator Will Tracy’s Succession background makes comparisons inevitable and destined for disappointment, but he’s still an adept crafter of bluntly profane dialogue and, in Winslet, has a star who’s capable of deploying that dialogue like a cudgel.

I wasn’t always sure what The Regime was doing, or why, but Winslet’s work, a complex blending of physical and psychological choices, kept the series somewhere between watchable and fascinating.

Winslet plays Elena Vernham, chancellor of an authoritarian regime of a fictional country located in the middle of Europe. Elena, a former physician married to a poetry-loving Frenchman (Guillaume Gallienne’s Nicky), took over the country from its long-deposed leader (Hugh Grant) and cultivated a reign of fascistic maternalism.

The country, with an economy built on cobalt mining and sugar beets, loves Elena. Elena is falling apart. Her father died one year earlier and his spirit haunts the palace, an appropriated luxury hotel that Elena never leaves. Or maybe the problem is just mold. Elena has become more and more paranoid about fungal incursions into her grandiose residence. Elena has ordered every empty space to be packed with dehumidifiers, and her demands on the palace staff — Andrea Riseborough plays stern and increasingly frazzled household coordinator Agnes — are growing ever more erratic.

A tipping point comes when Elena hires Corporal Herbert Zubak (Matthias Schoenaerts) to serve as her new spore-monger, vetting each room for moisture levels. Elena isn’t well, but Herbert isn’t much better. He was recently part of a rather unfortunate situation in which the military massacred protesters at a mine, but for some reason Elena is convinced that “There’s a good man in there who deserves love.”

In very little time — episodes of The Regime jump forward weeks and months at a time, as the season covers a year in decline — Elena and Herbert have formed a toxic bond in which it isn’t always clear who is manipulating whom and to what end. It’s a little psychosexual and a little political, and Herbert’s growing influence begins to concern Elena’s council of interchangeable advisors, then the United States of America (with Martha Plimpton playing a disapproving senator) and then the civilians.

Tracy has situated the story in a nebulous region between allegorical and tangibly reality-based, which results in a critique that’s superficially cutting instead of deeply perceptive. The series has some awareness of the tactics employed by authoritarian regimes — Elena’s regular televised addresses to the nation, couched in placating romantic language, are her key connection to the outside world — but the matters at stake are either hazy or perplexingly concrete. When the series pays lip service to the consequences of land reform in Zimbabwe and South Africa, those are real issues that have had real global consequences that The Regime is completely unable to grapple with in a justifiably real way.

It’s a blurry and self-evident condemnation of blustery, media-bashing, scapegoating demagoguery that you could certainly connect to the Donald Trumps or Vladimir Putins of the world. But I can also easily imagine an interpretation (misinterpretation?) in which Elena is meant as a reflection of the more avuncular word-salad-spewing tendencies of a Joe Biden. So a wholly toothless “Anybody who wants power and exercises power is probably bad” reading is possible.

The Regime has little to say, but it says it with a proud torrent of four-letter words, and the cadences are close enough to that Iannucci/Armstrong brand of florid obscenity that you can easily sit back and enjoy the insults. Unless you’re plagued by the sense that The Regime might actually be as cold and hollow as early detractors of Succession claimed that show was.

Unlike Succession, I don’t think The Regime will be miscategorized as a drama, with directors Stephen Frears and Jessica Hobbs steering into the quirky lightness as they follow bickering characters through the opulence of the palace, accompanied by an aggressively whimsical score from Alexandre Desplat. You’d think a show set almost entirely in an enclosed edifice could get claustrophobic, but when that building includes a seedy karaoke bar, a Strangelove-esque war room and various subterranean prison cells, production designer Kave Quinn gets to be a real star.

Winslet digs deep into her professional bag of tricks to make Elena’s motivations and wellness unreadable. Sometimes there’s a slur to her speech and a droop to her lip that suggest infirmity and instability. Other times, she’s cold and calculating and completely in control. When her mind is wavering, she lets her posture convey strength. When her body is failing, she uses her mind to seduce everybody around her, including Gallienne’s Nicky, who makes for a flighty and funny cuck, and Schoenaerts’ Herbert, a hulking figure with an ostensibly irresistible gravitational pull.

One can imagine a more substantive version of The Regime that takes greater advantage of an ensemble that is both quite brilliant and quite underused. Plimpton and Grant are present for basically only an episode apiece, with Plimpton expertly channeling a very Hillary Clintonian American imperiousness and Grant going Tony Blair-esque as a desiccated figured grasping at the clout afforded by his diminishing charisma.

Getting more screen time and probably coming as close to a sympathetic figure as the series offers, Riseborough has a somber, occasionally hilarious, wraith-like quality as a woman who recognizes how dysfunctional the palace is, but can do nothing to stop it. Agnes is a contrast to Elena’s sycophantic Greek chorus of cheery and bewildered advisors who barely have names and definitely don’t have individual personalities other than that they’re played by pedigreed British thespians (David Bamber, Danny Web and Henry Goodman, among others).

You can see how The Regime wants to fit into that Duck Soup/The Great Dictator/Bananas tradition of commentary, without unearthing much wisdom on the nature of power and how it’s used and abused in the current day. After watching six episodes, the power I found myself most invested in was Kate Winslet’s capacity to make any HBO project worth checking out.