'Chaos' fueled by quirks, CIA drama

New York TimesApril 3, 2011 

  • Chaos 8 p.m. EDT Fridays, on CBS

'Chaos," a series that debuted Friday on CBS, is at once a deadpan send-up of the spy genre in the manner of "Get Smart" and something considerably less ambitious.

The opening montage, a series of black-and-white Cold War images making reference to intelligence foibles and occasions of malfeasance, offers a wry instant history of misguided U.S. foreign policy.

What follows is even funnier. Arriving for his first day at CIA headquarters in suburban Virginia, the eager young spook Rick Martinez encounters failures of security at the entry gate, where the gumbo he has packed for lunch trips alarms as potential weaponry. And to think the stuff didn't even look that spicy.

Martinez, played by Freddy Rodriguez, is the catalyst for the action. You may recall seeing him in the embalming room on "Six Feet Under."

People who seem comfortable around formaldehyde aren't those we necessarily imagine assuming the mantle of Maxwell Smart. Rodriguez's look of fixed perplexity doesn't make him the most obvious choice for comic material, but his anxiety accommodates the proceedings well here. He seems like the right kind of guy to get caught up in the wrong kind of mess.

Martinez has been aspiring to spydom apparently since birth.

"I have trained my whole life for a career with the CIA," he tells his boss, a stone-faced functionary played by Kurtwood Smith. "When my brothers were at soccer camp, I stayed home and studied Arabic. When everyone else was dating, I was working at a firing range, getting paid in bullets, so I could train on semiautomatics."

Martinez has ideas about the direction his professional life will take that are quickly contradicted by reality.

For a protracted moment it feels as if "Chaos" is going to turn inventively into a CIA satire completely under the influence of "The Office."

The show, initially, suggests that the real crisis at the headquarters will have something do with budget cuts that mean fewer laser printers for expense reports from trips made to the Milwaukee field office. This would be welcome. But it isn't long before we've descended into the territory of rogue agents, Sudanese rebels, near-death hostage situations, Cambodian heroin dealers and bizarre excursions into desert negotiation.

"Chaos" has had a long and troubled journey to prime time, dying for a period and then being brought back to life. The show's creator, Tom Spezialy, has said he was inspired by "The Four Musketeers" but also by Mike Nichols, Wes Anderson and Alexander Payne.

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