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‘Citadel’ Is Amazon’s Latest Costly Attempt at Making a Brand-Defining Franchise

Following the mixed response to the staggeringly expensive ‘The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power,’ Prime Video is back with a $200 million series that feels like a SparkNotes version of an action show

Amazon/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

You get only one chance to make a first impression, and for the most expensive television series ever made, its long-awaited debut was a mixed bag, at best. In a wide-ranging feature from The Hollywood Reporter earlier this month, sources at Amazon Prime Video revealed that The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power had an uninspiring 37 percent completion rate domestically—in other words, just over one-third of audiences finished the first season. (Per the Prime Video insiders, a 50 percent completion rate would’ve been seen as solid.) Although The Rings of Power received mostly positive reviews from critics, with particular praise for its production value, such viewing metrics paint a grim portrait of Prime Video’s big-picture aspirations: Instead of a home run, its biggest swing in the ongoing Streaming Wars amounted to a ground-rule double.

The Rings of Power’s underwhelming launch is emblematic of larger issues for Prime Video, which, as The Hollywood Reporter also noted, lacks a cohesive vision for its slate of original programming in spite of ballooning production costs. (Along the way, the streamer has failed to meet Jeff Bezos’s lofty goal of creating the next Game of Thrones–like megahit.) While Prime Video is essentially a side hustle for one of the world’s largest online retailers—a way of attracting more subscribers who would like access to, say, Thursday Night Football—the streamer’s current spending habits are increasingly glaring when there are diminishing returns. But if Amazon wasn’t quite ready to hit the panic button on its recent streaming efforts, then the rollout of Citadel might push the company over the edge.

A globe-trotting thriller executive-produced by Joe and Anthony Russo, Citadel is arguably Prime Video’s most ambitious (and riskiest) project to date. Unlike The Rings of Power, Citadel isn’t based on any preexisting IP, and the series will serve as the flagship for what’s intended to be a new small-screen universe. (Prime Video has already given the green light for foreign-language offshoots in Italy and India.) The show focuses on spies working for the titular Citadel, a secret international organization that isn’t loyal to any nation—rather, it exists in the shadows to protect all of humanity from sinister forces. On paper, you can understand the appeal of Citadel’s premise: a new action-oriented franchise with a global reach baked into its DNA, orchestrated by the duo responsible for some of the most lucrative blockbusters of the past decade.

Of course, what sounds promising in theory doesn’t always work out in execution. The problems for Citadel began with original showrunner Josh Appelbaum exiting the project over creative differences, which required extensive reshoots after David Weil (creator of Amazon’s Hunters) was hired in his stead. As a result, Citadel’s budget exceeded $200 million, making it Prime Video’s second-most expensive series, behind The Rings of Power. The reshoots also meant that much of what was filmed under Appelbaum was left on the cutting-room floor: The first season was supposed to be eight hour-long episodes, but the final product is six episodes with considerably shorter run times. (Of the three episodes made available to critics, none were longer than 40 minutes—opening and closing credits included.)

Knowing the chaotic behind-the-scenes context isn’t necessary to watch Citadel, but it goes a long way toward explaining why the first season is so disjointed: a haphazard collection of high-octane moments in search of narrative glue to hold them all together. The series begins on a train passing through the Italian Alps, where the flirty Citadel spies Nadia Sinh (Priyanka Chopra Jonas) and Mason Kane (Richard Madden) are tasked with tracking down a Russian agent planning to sell uranium. As Nadia soon discovers, the situation is a ruse devised by Manticore: a nefarious, Illuminati-like syndicate whose members manipulate world events to accrue more wealth and power among themselves. Someone within Citadel has betrayed the organization, and Manticore is in the midst of wiping out its network of spies across the globe. A tense shoot-out ensues on the train, during which the Russian agent detonates a bomb.

While Nadia and Mason survive the explosion, they both lose their memories in the aftermath. Fast-forward eight years—the sudden time jump is as jarring as it sounds—and Mason has settled down with a wife and daughter in rural Oregon; Nadia, meanwhile, works at an upscale restaurant in Valencia, Spain. Mason’s new life as a family man is interrupted by Bernard Orlick (Stanley Tucci), one of the few surviving Citadel agents after the global massacre, who needs his old colleague for a new mission: retrieve a case containing nuclear codes before it falls into Manticore’s hands. (Nadia is brought back into the fold shortly after.) Unfortunately, that’s about all there is to Citadel in the first half of the season, which has the brevity of a Quibi series at quadruple the cost.

It’s rare that a show’s biggest flaw is that it could’ve used longer run times—more often than not, lengthier episodes are viewed as a marker of prestige, even if a series has little to fill the extra space. (Remember when Ted Lasso was a half-hour sitcom?) But Citadel is the SparkNotes version of an action series, so devoid of detail and narrative momentum that you’d wonder what the hell happened with the production if it wasn’t already reported in the entertainment trades. Even a sequence that should be the bread and butter of a spy series—Mason stealing the nuclear codes case from a heavily guarded Manticore facility in New York while getting reacquainted with his particular set of skills—is over in the span of a few minutes, depriving Citadel of any dramatic tension (or nifty fight choreography) in service of burning through what’s already a bare-bones plot.

If anything, Citadel feels like the small-screen equivalent of The Snowman: a high-profile disaster whose own director admitted the crew wasn’t able to shoot the entire script due to a rushed production. (We’ll always have the Snowman memes.) Citadel should actually have footage to spare, it’s just that most of it fell victim to competing visions for the show—the end result is a rough cut masquerading as a finished product. It’s difficult to reliably judge what was left out of Citadel after extensive reshoots, but what little remains is hardly encouraging as the launchpad for a new franchise. Even if the international spinoffs and future seasons of the flagship series work out some of the kinks, Amazon can’t expect viewers to remain loyal to something that fails to impress them from the jump.

Considering how much creative input the Russos had over Citadel, the show has to go down as another flop from the filmmakers, whose post-Marvel slate leaves a lot to be desired. (In fairness, the Russos do have one flex on their recent résumé: They were producers on Everything Everywhere All at Once.) For anyone who suffered through The Gray Man on Netflix—the streamer’s most expensive movie to date, directed by the Russos—Citadel treads familiar territory for all the wrong reasons: perfunctory action scenes and MCU-like quips coalescing into something that doesn’t strive to be anything more than ordinary. Citadel might not mark the end of the Russos as in-demand Hollywood creatives—for all its flaws, The Gray Man is getting a sequel and a spinoff. But the show’s disappointing debut, coupled with their recent directorial efforts, underlines the Russos’ limitations when they aren’t coloring within the lines of the MCU.

The fact that it was Amazon Studios head Jennifer Salke who originally approached the Russos about the prospect of creating Citadel means that, in many respects, the streamer made its own bed. There’s still time for Prime Video to turn things around—carving out a Dad TV niche with meat-and-potatoes thrillers like Reacher and Jack Ryan is one promising development. But with Prime Video’s two most expensive shows struggling out of the gate, and the service still lacking a brand-defining hit like Netflix’s Stranger Things or Apple TV+’s Ted Lasso, you have to wonder how much longer Amazon can afford costly setbacks before mulling its future in the Streaming Wars. With all the money Prime Video has poured into Citadel and its international spinoffs currently in production, it’s little surprise that the series has already been renewed for a second season. But unless Citadel can pull off a remarkable turnaround after such a disastrous launch, its next mission could very well be its last.