Amazon steps up its original content significantly this weekend, with the premiere of You Are Wanted, its first German original series. The show has even been released globally, thanks to the online giant’s recent expansion of Amazon Prime Video to more than 200 countries and territories. The six-part thriller, though, is less of a bold stride and more of a misstep.
The show certainly strives to be cutting edge, right down to its subject: hacking. Poor Lukas Franke, a young hotel manager, finds himself the victim of a computer attack, just at the time that a blackout hits Berlin. The unseen attacker, whose name we’re told is Kaufmann, piles up enough online evidence to frame him for the blackout, putting police chief Jansen (a hard-nosed Catrin Striebeck) and deputy chief Siebert (the slippery, snivelling Edin Hasanovic) onto his trail.
If all this sounds familiar, that’s because You Are Wanted feels like it’s mostly stitched together from cliches you’ve seen elsewhere. Innocent man on the run? Check. Hooded hackers who spend their days away from sunlight? Check. One friendly hacker (Dalton – Louis Hoffman) who helps him fight back? Check. Feisty female sidekick, who is in a similar situation (Lena – Karoline Herfurth)? Check. Tough, no-nonsense police detective who suspects a mole in her department? Check. The list goes on.
Matthias Schweighöfer is a charismatic lead, as he tries to investigate the threat against him by any means necessary. He does wide-eyed shock well, but with a hint of ambiguity to keep you guessing – as the hacker conjures up incriminating proof of everything from terrorist connections to extra-marital affairs, Franke is enough of a flawed human for some of it to be true. With Kaufmann potentially linked to his past somehow, how well does this hacker really know him? And how much can his wife, Hanna (Alexandra Maria Lara), trust him? No wonder the police and she are so quick to buy into Kaufmann’s claims.
But the problem isn’t the performances: it’s everything else. The script has a knack of lining up cliffhangers at the end of each chapter, daring you to stop watching, but it fudges most of the rest, from clunky dialogue to shallow characters. Lara, in particular, is wasted as his two-dimensional wife, as the series teases us with the possibility of her having an affair with her client, Marc (an enjoyably oily Tom Beck), only for her to wind up as a more generic token spouse: you never get the sense that her and Franke’s son, Leon, are there for any other purpose than to be placed in jeopardy at some point. The screenplay doesn’t even try to pretend otherwise: “As long as you have no idea what’s going on, what can you do?” one of Hanna’s friends actually advises her. “Just sit around and eat ice cream and wait. That’s what I do.” All poor Leon wants, meanwhile, is someone to play with.
You wonder how much of that is down to the fact that Schweighöfer is involved in writing the show as well as starring in it. He produces too, and co-directs every episode with Bernhard Jasper. Perhaps the end result would be more successful if he had more time to spend on each job. The narrative is predictable – you’ll guess who’s behind it all within two episodes – and trades in the kind of outdated cyber-thriller nonsense (every camera is instantly hacked into at every possible moment) that was left behind way before Mr. Robot showed us that techno-paranoia could still be done in a convincing way in the 21st century. The visuals are slick, but even the action sequences are let down by repeatedly misjudged music cues (Schweighöfer co-composed these too): one motorcycle chase starts off exciting, but is immediately undermined by the choice of a soft guitar soundtrack, while another moment, which sees Hanna potentially fending off a home intruder, is accompanied by melancholic piano.
There’s an interesting final flourish that raises the question of surveillance and digital security on a wider, global scale, but you end up wishing that was the beginning of the story, not an afterthought to an overcooked, overly familiar drama. The only unanswered question you have from this programme is why on earth Franke keeps on opening dodgy email attachments on his phone.
Amazon is clearly aiming big with the production, even recording a dubbed soundtrack for those who don’t like subtitles, but that ambition only highlights the show’s shortcomings: put on the dubbed version and the voices (which, naturally, don’t match the characters’ mouth movements) feel as dated as the script’s stereotypes; put on the German original, meanwhile, and you soon remember that subtitles don’t guarantee quality and a committed cast can’t disguise poor plotting. We live in an age where, thanks to BBC Four and Channel 4’s Walter Presents, we can stream excellent TV shows from around the world, including Germayn’s thrilling Deutschland 83 and gripping crime franchise Tatort. You Are Wanted is a disappointing reminder that, even with Amazon’s backing, other countries can make mediocre series too. One step forward, two steps back.
You Are Wanted is available to watch online excusively on Amazon Prime Video as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.