"The Diplomat," which premieres tonight on Ion, is one of those character-driven, complicated miniseries thrillers the British are so fond of, the kind of story in which a highly significant plot point is revealed by the way a person purses his mouth when he gets off the phone.
Following a multilayered intrigue either put in peril or revealed by the arrest of a British diplomat who appears to be importing heroin into the U.K., "The Diplomat" has twists and turns galore, but the most surprising thing about it is that it isn't British, it's Australian. Which means, among other things, that though some of the action occurs in London, much of it is centered in Sydney and outlying areas, with occasional jaunts to Tajikistan.
The geography provides "The Diplomat's" major hook; in all other respects it's a rather standard tale of espionage, with moles, double-dealing and good acting all around.
The diplomat in question is Ian Porter, played by Dougray Scott ("Heist," "Desperate Housewives"). Scott is one of those imperfectly handsome men who can go from sleekly self-satisfied to hollow and haunted with the aid of only a slight sheen of perspiration and a day's worth of beard. This comes in handy considering that a fairly large percentage of the two-part, three-hour series is spent contemplating Porter's face.
This diplomat is beset not only by the complications of what appears to be a covert attempt to bring down Sergei, a Russian drug lord, but also by personal anguish that is revealed in a much over-used series of flashbacks.
Investigating Porter's drug deal -- heroin was discovered in the balalaikas Porter sent from his post in Tajikistan back home -- is Julie Hales (Rachael Blake), a detective chief inspector that "Prime Suspect's" Jane Tennison would have been proud to know.
For purposes that are mainly plot driven, Porter's lovely ex-wife Pippa ( Claire Forlani) is dragged onto the scene, and soon the two are bundled off to Sydney as part of a witness protection program.
The trouble with these multilayered espionage plots is that the viewer expects major plot revelations, so it's difficult to conjure up a real surprise. And writers Ronan Glennane and Nell Greenwood do have a tendency to play to stereotypes.
Still, the acting is terrific, and there are a few unexpectedly lovely moments along Porter's personal odyssey. Although those close-ups on Scott's eyes are nowhere near as dramatic as the director seems to think they are, Porter's pain is wrenching to behold, as are the emotional negotiations in which he and Pippa engage. And there's something undeniably refreshing about watching the Australian police force having a go at the brick wall of British intelligence; they don't do anything the Americans wouldn't have done, but somehow it seems more interesting -- probably it's the accent.
In the end, nothing much happens in "The Diplomat" that you couldn't have seen coming, but the story does take a road less traveled by, and that, as we all know, makes all the difference.