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‘The Diplomat’ vs. Reality
A popular show on Netflix is about the glamorous job of a U.S. ambassador. But is it realistic?
Keri Russell as Kate Wyler in “The Diplomat.”Credit…Alex Bailey/Netflix
By Lauren Jackson
May 14, 2023, 6:52 a.m. ET
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The allure of an ambassador’s life is obvious: wielding government power and throwing parties for influential people in a far-flung location. “The Diplomat,” which premiered last month on Netflix, highlights the glamour while omitting the drudgery of the job — the memos, press engagements and red tape.
In the show, Keri Russell plays a U.S. ambassador to Britain named Kate Wyler, who spends her days managing international crises with quippy retorts. She lives in a mansion, is photographed for Vogue and is married to a former ambassador, played by Rufus Sewell.
“The Diplomat” was Netflix’s most popular show in recent weeks, and U.S. ambassadors around the world are watching. It transforms diplomatic doublespeak into a smooth script, but does it accurately reflect the job? New York Times bureau chiefs and correspondents around the world asked ambassadors how well the show represented their work.
“We’re not as tough as the military, nor as cunningly cool as intelligence operatives,” John Feeley, a former U.S. ambassador to Panama, told my colleague Damien Cave. “So to have Keri Russell and Rufus Sewell have sex and call it a diplomatic rapprochement? Well, heck. I’ll take it. But it’s a fantasy.”
Here’s what other ambassadors told my colleagues working in Mexico, Australia, China and elsewhere:
What the show gets wrong
Part of the fun of “The Diplomat,” as with any workplace show, comes when it departs from reality. The ambassadors we spoke with were quick to point out discrepancies, both big (the lack of a Senate confirmation hearing) and small (Kate’s use of a cellphone in the office).
“I have a different memory of the confirmation process,” Rahm Emanuel, the U.S. ambassador to Japan, told my colleague Motoko Rich. “The show may get the diplomatic life right, but their grasp of American politics and the U.S. Senate? Not so right.”
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Here’s what else they said the show got wrong:
The ambassador’s use of military jets: “Yeah, right, I wish,” said Richard Buangan, the U.S. ambassador to Mongolia. “Most ambassadors would fly commercial to our posts like everyone else. We must be excellent stewards of U.S. taxpayer money.”
The rejoinders and banter: “Hyperbolic, unrealistic, amusing,” said Carlos Pascual, a former U.S. ambassador to Mexico and Ukraine. “The speeches every diplomat wants to give his or her boss. Eloquence that saves the world. Not exactly the daily course of business.”
A Vogue photo shoot: Multiple former ambassadors said the racks of outfits in the show were unrealistic. **“**Who’s paying for all these clothes?” wondered Vicki Huddleston, a former U.S. ambassador to Mali and Madagascar. Huddleston did once pose for a photo shoot — for The Times. In the photograph that accompanies the article, Huddleston said, she wore her own dress.
And the lavish breakfasts in the ambassador’s residence? “I don’t eat breakfast,” Emanuel said.
What the show gets right
Multiple ambassadors said the relationship between Kate and her No. 2 in the embassy, the deputy chief of mission, was accurate — along with the show’s use of the acronym D.C.M.
Emanuel’s office is next to that of his deputy chief, Raymond Greene, he said, so they pop in and out all day long. “Ray is often the first phone call or text at 6 a.m. and, somewhere around 9 p.m., also the last,” Emanuel said. “And also 1,000 times between.”
Here’s what else the show gets right:
A sprawling staff managing everything: “You really don’t have control of your life,” Emanuel said. “There’s parts of your life that gets cut up, chopped up, and everybody has a piece of it, and all of us are Type A personalities that like control.”
The packed suitcase: “I laughed out loud during the scene where Ambassador Wyler freaked out after her household staff packed her suitcase, everything neat and tightly folded,” Buangan said. “When my household staff packed my suitcase for my first trip up country, I freaked out, too. I’m not used to others touching my things.”
The gender dynamics: “Women leaders who watch and learn before making changes, as opposed to the male ‘marking their territory’ approach,” Roberta Jacobson, a former U.S. ambassador to Mexico, said. “She’s smart, funny, pushes back on some of the nonsense and is a fast learner — traits essential for any ambassador and perhaps more so for a woman.”
Some said they hoped the show would be good marketing for attracting recruits.
“‘Top Gun’ drove enlistments and interest in military aviation in the ’80s,” Feeley said. “I’m hopeful that ‘The Diplomat’ drives interest in foreign affairs and diplomacy despite its evident Hollywood veneer.”
Keith Bradsher, Steven Erlanger, Natalie Kitroeff, David Pierson and Dionne Searcey contributed reporting.