Review

Spy thriller 'Berlin Station' deftly balances character and plot

Created by spy-fiction novelist Olen Steinhauer, "Berlin Station," which begins Sunday on Epix, is a tense, terse thriller — good-looking but never fussy, balancing character and plot in satisfying proportions, a new suit cut to classic lines.

Though it begins in a burst of action, the storm before the flashback, its early hours are taken up mostly with talking and walking and lurking. (Two episodes of 10 were available for review.) It builds on the expectation, learned from growing up with movies, that bad things happen when we least expect them.

CIA agent Daniel Miller (Richard Armitage, who spent three seasons in this milieu in "MI-5") believes he has identified the go-between between an anonymous whistle-blower and the journalist publishing embarrassing-to-the-U.S. revelations in the German press. (I didn't question these bombshells having to be hand-delivered, but is that how things happen now?)

Sent to the agency's Berlin office undercover, Daniel finds himself in complicated company, including station head (Richard Jenkins), who is not quite ready to admit he's done with his job; administrator Valerie Edwards (Michelle Forbes, forbes-midable), who is ready to take his place; deputy chief Robert Kirsch (Leland Orser), whose constant abrasiveness would ordinarily mean he'll turn out all right in the end; and agent Hector DeJean (Rhys Ifans), an old associate of Daniel's who seems to be going to pieces.

The show requires attention, or at least a rewind button. There are many characters and story lines to keep straight, including domestic relations and after-hours friendships, and they may be related in ways that aren't always clear at first, or second.

Apart from the cases at hand, the underlying thrust of the series seems to be that whichever side you work for — be you agent, double agent, lone wolf, acting on principle or just for the pay — espionage will mess you up. Steinhauer doesn't overplay the point — no one's clinically ill here, just navigating the emotional downsides of double-dealing as a daily grind. But we are never completely sure whom to trust and whom even to like, whether to root for the moles or the spooks.

Berlin, old and new, pristine and vandalized, streets bustling with life, still makes a fine setting for this kind of tale, even now that the wall is down, Germany is one and the Cold War, for the next 20 minutes at least, is over. 

‘Berlin Station’

Where: Epix

When: 9 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)

robert.lloyd@latimes.com

On Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd

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