The Arnold Schwarzenegger Netflix spy comedy “Fubar” starts out so unfettered by reality that it holds real promise.
Luke Brunner, the CIA operative played by Schwarzenegger, who is 75, is described as being 65. He is on the eve of retirement when they pull him back in to infiltrate the Guyana compound of arms dealer Boro (Gabriel Luna), a guy so brutal that he kills an associate on stage at an outdoor party and orders the blood-splattered band to keep playing.
Also in Guyana is Luke’s do-gooder daughter, Emma (Monica Barbaro, from “Top Gun: Maverick”). Unbeknownst to her father, she is also a CIA operative and so deeply embedded in Boro’s world that she has become his favorite fight-club competitor.
Worse yet, horrified patriarch Luke discovers that Emma smokes, drinks and uses curse words, when he thought he had raised a lady. Emma, who always found her dad shady but was unaware he was a spy until they met in Guyana, feels even more betrayed than he does. They bicker about their mutual lies while running down and killing bad guys in a truck.
This is farce, right? With its Schwarzenegger age-shaving, sadistic South American crime lord, overblown violence, bawdy humor and related lead characters who are so inept as spies they do not know the other is in the CIA, “Fubar” sure seems like it. And this would be a good approach for Schwarzenegger to take in his first TV project. Although he still exudes abundant charisma, Schwarzenegger is an even stiffer actor today than he was in his heyday. But he was always pretty good at playing farce (“Twins” and “Junior” are prime examples). Almost as good as he was playing the Terminator. Or a Republican.
But as the eight-episode first season progresses, veteran showrunner Nick Santora (Prime Video’s “Reacher”) and his writing team tone down and sentimentalize “Fubar” into a barely interesting family drama and so-so workplace comedy. Sure, they throw in some spy stuff now and again, and ho-hum action scenes mostly involving Schwarzenegger’s younger co-stars. They also include a homophobic-leaning “they would love you in prison” running joke that is about as “edgy” as a setup they blatantly stole from “The 40-Year-Old Virgin.”
A show constantly in search of a consistent tone, “Fubar” plays as a woefully elongated tribute to Schwarzenegger’s 1994 action comedy “True Lies” — a take we hardly needed given how CBS just aired, and canceled, a “True Lies” series. But it is not in our power to stop a flood of 1980s and ‘90s action star nostalgia that includes “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny,” which just premiered at Cannes, and the Paramount+ reality show “The Family Stallone.” We can only act as guides to which entries to skip and which to watch. So despite its considerable flaws, “Fubar” boasts a wonderful second lead in Barbaro and a highly appealing supporting cast.
Barbaro, who reportedly will play Joan Baez in the forthcoming Bob Dylan biopic starring Timothée Chalamet, renders seamless every sudden shift by Emma from bad guy-dropping operative to the reasonable, thoughtful aid worker her boyfriend (Jay Baruchel) believes her to be. It’s like Emma truly is two different people. And while Barbaro is not exactly gifted at comedy, she pulls off a scene where Emma must mimic Schwarzenegger’s Austrian accent.
After intentionally keeping them apart for years, the CIA — improbably and likely in violation of nepotism rules — puts Luke and Emma on the same team, along with Luke’s longtime colleague Barry (Milan Carter). So close to the Brunner family that Emma calls him “Uncle,” Barry is mostly a keyboard warrior for the agency, since he has a heart condition and an oft-upset stomach. (This of course means he will be called into the field several times during the first season — with each instance treated as novel — because this show has maybe three ideas, tops).
The agency reasons that Luke, who has a long undercover history with Boro’s family, and Emma, up on more current activities, together possess the knowledge to take down the crime lord, who like so many sketchily drawn screen villains, aspires to trade in nuclear arms.
Their team also includes the dapper Aldon (Travis Van Winkle, the crunchy biohacker from “You” Season 3), who beds female criminals to get their secrets; the brilliant but cranky Roo (Fortune Feimster), Aldon’s best bud and wingwoman; and visiting National Security Agency analyst Tina (Aparna Brielle).
Barry still gets invited to Brunner family gatherings, where Luke’s warm, caring ex-wife (Fabiana Udenio) politely ignores how much Luke clearly wants her back. Other normies include Emma’s kind, sensitive boyfriend, who, in one of this series’ obvious allusions to Schwarzenegger movies, works as a kindergarten teacher. Although Baruchel and Udenio invest these two characters with integrity, their purpose here is to be duped by loved ones.
“Fubar” often entertains on a scene by scene basis, and even for 15 or 20 minutes at a time. Like Barbaro, Van Winkle radiates star quality and shares a great comic chemistry with the always delightful Feimster. But the show ultimately leans too heavily on Feimster, a popular stand-up comic in real life, to generate laughs, much as it does on Luna — who thrives in a quieter, lower key of menace — to be the face of evil.
Carter gives the dorky, sincere Barry a relatable vulnerability rare for this series. Barry’s crush on Tina, the NSA analyst, is adorable. Brielle gives Tina a growing confidence as she reveals more layers of personality as her bond with Barry in brainiac — and possibly romantic — fellowship grows.
Too bad “Fubar” so often strands this talented cast by abruptly shifting tones. A flirty scene between Emma and Aldon — clearly the two best-looking people in the CIA — captivates before the script throws in an unnecessary backstory that kills the mood.
Worse is a melodramatic subplot the writers insert out of nowhere, just when the show was finding its comic flow. This sequence is worthwhile only because it lets Dustin Milligan, who was almost too angelic as veterinarian Ted on “Schitt’s Creek,” convincingly play a real dirtbag.
“Fubar” premieres Thursday, May 25 on Netflix.