Old friends and one-time lovers Elaine (Brittany O’Grady from Season One of “The White Lotus”) and Craig (Nat Wolff) are workaholic employees at a rising game company headed by a divisive tech kid named Sang (Brian Yoon). They make those mobile games to which we’re all woefully addicted, killing brain cells to the rhythm of microtransactions that make people like Sang billionaires. But tragedy strikes when a tour of the company leads to the violent murder of Sang by a child holding a gun—a warning, then, that the workplace shooting that unfolds in the premiere may be a bit too timely and tragic for some viewers, but it does set the tone in that this is a show that’s at its best when it’s a bit reckless. With the controversy around the shooting, it looks like Sang’s company is about to go under when a mysterious consultant named Regus Patoff (a perfectly cast Christoph Waltz) slinks into the lobby, claiming that Sang hired him to fix things just before he died and maintain his legacy for generations to come. Of course, that’s going to cost something.
With a mysterious European eccentric barking orders at a tech company—like insisting that all work-from-home employees get to the office in an hour or be fired—people will have fun drawing parallels between Patoff and the gentleman currently doing “something” over at Twitter. But the title character of this series has much darker aspirations than Mr. Musk (we hope). It’s not long before Craig and Elaine suspect something isn’t quite right with their new benefactor as he enforces bizarre new rules (no shoes at the office), pits workers against each other for a vacant office, and generally sows chaos as he speaks of Sang’s legacy. In the premiere, Craig and Elaine find security footage of the meeting between Patoff and Sang that initiated this deal, and, well, it doesn’t end like a typical meeting. As the two attempt to keep their jobs and the company afloat, they also try to get to the truth behind “The Consultant.”
It’s not exactly a spoiler to say that Patoff isn’t what he seems. The series creators, including “Servant” writer Tony Basgallop, adapting a 2015 book by horror writer Bentley Little, play with audience suspicions with soundtrack cues like “Devil in Disguise” and an increasingly disturbing sequence of events that hint that Patoff may not be of this mortal plain. Roughly midway through the 8-episode season, “The Consultant” hits its peak when Patoff takes Craig on a tumultuous night out that involves a secret club, a mysteriously scarred woman, a violent kidnapping, and even a potential murder. The show never quite gets that delightfully weird again because it’s one of those incredibly rare programs in the bloated streaming era that actually feels too short—the whole thing only runs about four hours. It’s so intent on Craig and Elaine getting to the bottom of Patoff’s intentions and background that it often favors exposition over surreal chaos when it could have used much more of the latter.
“The Consultant” also wastes opportunities to dive into some religious themes. Craig is getting married to a devout woman named Patti (Aimee Carrero of “The Menu”), and he will have to convert to do so. The conflict between a faithful home life and a devilish work one should be fruitful ground for some sharp character work and commentary, but the team here wastes it (or potentially saves it for future seasons). The writing has a bad habit of raising intriguing ideas only to rush to the credits and the next episode, often forgetting what happened in the one before. The half-hour structure in “The Consultant” actually star hurts the show as the series goes on, as each episode has about 45 minutes of plot crammed into a smaller time-frame. In effect, way too many ideas go unfulfilled.
The show also just needs to be weirder. Basgallop’s “Servant” is also at its best when it’s willing to get strange in ways that defy easy explanations. The idea that the devil, or at least one of his minions, is out there cutting Faustian deals in the tech sector, influencing the masses through mobile software, is so rich with potential insanity that it’s surprising how much “The Consultant” plays it safe. After the aforementioned “night from Hell,” Craig ends up in Pomona, where he discovers a potentially impossible background for Patoff, but it doesn’t build from there as it should. The writing here has a problem when it comes to momentum. Another large issue is are the performances of the two leads. Wolff can’t quite sell what should be Craig’s total mental unraveling in the season finale—he’s too aloof when he needs to be unsettled—and O’Grady struggles with an inconsistent character, someone who doesn’t appears not to fal for Patoff’s schtick, but may end up being the one who benefits the most from it. Although, Elaine’s arc does drive home a big theme in “The Consultant”: sometimes you don’t notice when you’re becoming an ally of evil, especially in tech.
Clearly, “The Consultant” is thematically rich in ways that make it an interesting watch. And at only 8 episodes, the whole thing is perfect for a weekend binge-watch. Ultimately, it’s not a bad show because it’s never a boring show, but it also feels like it never quite clicks into its full potential. If Amazon Prime Video renews it—and the season finale works both as a series one and leaves enough doors open for another chapter—everything needs to get turned up several notches. Let’s get weird: Sang’s legacy deserves it. [B-]