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Part satire, part tragedy, 'The Sympathizer' will reward your full attention

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The new TV series "The Sympathizer" tells the dark, funny story of a Vietnamese double agent during and after the Vietnam War. The show, which premieres on HBO Sunday night, is based on the 2015 novel by Viet Thanh Nguyen, which won the Pulitzer Prize. Our critic-at-large John Powers says there are countless ways to go wrong adapting such a tricky book, but "The Sympathizer" gets it right.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: The first person I ever saw address the question of personal identity was that renowned philosopher Popeye - I am what I am, and that's all what I am. If only life could be so simple. Nowadays, we all wear numerous identities - national identities, racial identities, gender identities, religious identities, family identities, digital identities - and it can take years of struggle to find out who we truly are. A world-class identity crisis drives the ambitious new HBO series "The Sympathizer." It's based on Viet Thanh Nguyen's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, which took a seemingly well-known subject, the Vietnam War, and flipped it, telling a tale that was fresh and saucy and steeped in Vietnamese experience. Jauntily adapted by Don McKellar and the great South Korean director Park Chan-wook, this complicated seven-part show takes a surreal look at the cost of colonialism and the disillusionment of revolution. The ambiguous promise of America and the reality of immigration.

The story is told by a young man known only as The Captain, played with tightly wound irony by the Australian actor Hoa Xuande. Pushing ambivalence to its existential limits, The Captain is not only the son of a Vietnamese woman and a French priest, he's blood brothers with two ideologically different buddies. While Bon is a fiercely loyal South Vietnamese soldier, Man is secretly a communist. In a way, The Captain mirrors both. He works as a spy for the North Vietnamese, while serving as the trusted aide-de-camp of a South Vietnamese big shot, The General, a childish, bullying paranoiac made oddly likeable by Toan Le's delightful performance.

Starting just before the 1975 fall of Saigon, the action takes The Captain from a harrowing airlift out of Vietnam and on to a new life in LA, where he lives with Bon and keeps spying on The General who plots a return. He starts sleeping with Sofia, a droll Japanese American played by Sandra Oh, gets roped into a couple of murders and navigates a series of overbearing white guys - a scheming CIA agent, a gun-happy congressman, a professor who talks about the Oriental mind and a vainglorious Hollywood filmmaker who's shooting a Vietnam War epic. All four are played by Robert Downey Jr. Through it all, The Captain holds to his double identity. Sometimes for laughs. Here he toys with a young American journalist who naively tells him that he's on his side.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SYMPATHIZER")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) We were on your side.

HOA XUANDE: (As The Captain) Really? And which side was that?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) The side of the Vietnamese people.

XUANDE: (As The Captain) Oh. Which people? The people in the north or the people in the south?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Well, all of them, I guess.

XUANDE: (As The Captain) Guess we all look the same after all, right? I mean, I could be Viet Cong for all you know. Undercover. How would you know?

POWERS: Now, as it leapfrogs between satire and tragedy, this show asks and rewards your full attention. Cinematically directed, especially in Park's dazzling first three episodes, the show brims with good stuff - pointed comedy, a gloriously vivid '70s look and a grand thematic sweep. Where an enjoyable series like "Shogun" has little going on beneath its lush surface, "The Sympathizer" has almost too much - history, politics, guilt, racial stereotypes, notions of loyalty, the alluring lies of pop culture, the elusiveness of stories. It reminds us that the Vietnam War was Vietnamese, not American. And it builds to an ending I found more powerful than the novel's.

Not everything is perfect. The episode about making the Vietnam movie is old hat. Enough with the run-amok auteurs already. And the decision to have Downey play four roles proves more a stunt than a revelation. It's clearly a nod to "Dr. Strangelove," in which Peter Sellers was three characters. Yet Downey's fame and showiness lead him to overpower scenes that shouldn't really be about him. Like Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man," one of Nguyen's inspirations, The Captain isn't seen for who he truly is. While the white world projects its fantasies onto him, his South Vietnamese comrades are taken in by his mask as a double agent. Already tied into knots by his imposture, he's also blessed - or cursed - with sympathy, the ability to see the world from different sides. He's never quite sure he believes what he thinks he believes, or whether he should love the American pop songs he loves. Looking at Xuande's face at almost any point, you see that nothing for The Captain is simple.

Back during the Vietnam War, the comedy group Firesign Theater brought out an album called "How Can You Be In Two Places At Once When You're Not Anywhere At All?" That title came to mind as I watched "The Sympathizer." The Captain is constantly trying to be in two places at once - in Vietnam and America, in the revolution and against it. But what he needs is to take the hard truths he's learned and start over somewhere new. It's hard not to sympathize.

DAVIES: John Powers reviewed the new HBO series "The Sympathizer."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: If you'd like to catch up on interviews you've missed, such as our conversation with actor Andrew Scott, who stars in the new Netflix series "Ripley," or with Rachel Lance about her book "Chamber Divers: The Untold Story Of The D-Day Scientists Who Changed Special Operations Forever," listen to our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews. And if you'd like a peek behind the scenes at FRESH AIR, subscribe to our newsletter. You'll find bonus material about the interviews, staff recommendations and highlights from the archives. You can subscribe at whyy.org/freshair For Terry Gross and Tonya Mosley, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.