In a way, Arnold Schwarzenegger was the 1980s. Slightly less realistic than other heroes of the era – Sylvester Stallone, Steven Seagal, Optimus Prime, Number 5 from the film Short Circuit, Sooty, Alf – he resembled a He-Man action figure embiggened by a wizard, or maybe several normal men tied together with elastic, or, if you prefer, a pyramid of glistening meats with a side parting, breechclout and come-hither nipples.
It was an era when no matter what the problem was – poverty, illness, energy prices, communism, civil rights, regime change, the balance of payments – a man with a central European accent and the ear of the president always said: “Perhaps we could shoot at it.” That man was typically Henry Kissinger, but it might as well have been Arnold Schwarzenegger, because he shot at things frequently and with good-humoured brio.
Here are some of the things he shot at: a sportsmanlike alien with mandibles on his face, in Predator (shout-out to readers if you have mandibles on your face); the human race, in Terminator (fair enough, we’d had a good run); a South American dictator who kidnapped his daughter Alyssa Milano, in Commando (teenage daughters were always getting kidnapped by regional stereotypes in the 1980s). He even shot at the most dangerous prey of all, children, in Kindergarten Cop. (I haven’t seen Kindergarten Cop, but I know children, so I’m pretty sure this how it went down.) Despite this list of foes, in many ways Schwarzenegger’s greatest enemy was “shirts”, and in every film he ultimately found a way to wrestle himself free of his cotton bounds and emerge glistening in the sun, like a violent Austrian balloon animal.
“That’s it and that’s all,” Schwarzenegger says frequently on Fubar, his new Netflix series. He never uses an exclamation mark when he says it. Instead he utters it like a sigh, knowing it will never be on a T-shirt
Eventually he took on the weirdest role of all: governor of California, because that’s the sort of thing that can happen in the United States, a country with no history and no self-restraint. He didn’t shoot even one measly person while in this role. He even wore shirts. Over time his novelty factor was eclipsed by fellow celebrity politicians such as Donald Trump, because Trump is what happens if you put an Arnold Schwarzenegger doll, Mein Kampf, the works of Norman Vincent Peale and some Labrador hair into a microwave. In this post-Trump world, it was perhaps inevitable that Schwarzenegger would return to what he does best: pretending to murder people while saying catchphrases in a flat monotone.
“That’s it and that’s all,” he says frequently on Fubar, his new Netflix series. He never uses an exclamation mark when he says it. Instead he utters it like a sigh, knowing it will never be on a T-shirt and will only ever be repeated, with a sad tilt of the head, by a studio executive sent to cancel the show. Fubar is a military acronym that means “F***ed up beyond all recognition”, but it also sounds like the kind of place Johnny Ronan would have dined in with Irish models circa 2005.
The show starts with an overview of a city and the word “Antwerp”. This is not Antman’s stupider nephew but a city in Belgium. There’s only one conceivable reason why an American show would start in a stupid European city instead of a cool American city: spy stuff! We meet CIA agent Luke Brunner (Schwarzenegger) as he walks in slow motion away from an explosion and Sympathy for the Devil plays. I know what you’re thinking: it’s nice to see this rare cut from the Rolling Stones getting some soundtrack work for a change. They have so little.
Like all spies, Brunner has an exposition man, a wacky friend whose main job is to explain the plot into his earpiece and to do computer stuff. Brunner, we learn, is on the eve of retiring – but not before he dresses as a fireman, steals diamonds, orders a missile-strike execution and commits a number of extrajudicial murders that would cause an international incident were they not carried out by Arnold Schwarzenegger. (“Fair enough,” is the correct diplomatic response to this scenario.)
The terrorist’s compound seems quite pleasant. There’s a pastoral atmosphere, stunning views, a thriving musical scene and a family-friendly work-life balance
He is then sent on one last mission. He must extract an agent from the Guyana-based compound of a terrorist/crime lord. Brunner knows him. He threw the terrorist’s father from a cliff many years before, and now the terrorist has a nuclear bomb in a briefcase and wants revenge on the US. If there’s a moral here about the United States’ foreign-policy meddling, the characters of Fubar take it to be: “We should really meddle more.”
The terrorist’s compound seems quite pleasant, to be honest. There’s a pastoral atmosphere, stunning views, a thriving musical scene and a family-friendly work-life balance. (The henchmen work near their homes.) Yes, the boss sometimes kills employees on a whim, but if you consider the cost of living and the length of your commute, I think you’ll find it balances out. I can see the newspaper articles now: “We left the big city for the rural compound of a drug warlord and we haven’t looked back!” “Yes, my boss sometimes murders his employees, but my commute is just five minutes and I got my house for free!”
Sadly, Brunner never gives the lifestyle a chance. He has no interest in learning about their relaxed mountain ways. Instead he keeps an eye out for the briefcase bomb and the other CIA agent until he finds out that it’s his daughter, Baby Brunner. (I can’t remember her actual character name.) He encounters her as she’s violently assaulting another terrorist. She is also smoking, which means that she’s pretty cool. That said, I still think they were missing a trick not having Arnold Schwarzenegger play his own daughter, like in The Nutty Professor.
“Whaaaaat?” Arnold Schwarzenegger’s confused face seems to say on encountering his perp-pulverising progeny. “A lady spy? A lady spy who is my daughter? A lady spy who is my daughter and is smoking?” (This may not be the exact dialogue.) The Brunners aren’t great at being spies. They bicker about their secret spy lives loudly and are rumbled as CIA agents by a host of gunmen with terrible aim. So they engage in a spree of father-daughter murder before a helicopter of fellow agents comes in and slaughters most of the baddies with machine guns. This is just something that American security agencies are allowed to do, I guess, and isn’t questioned once in this programme (or much in life).
Fubar has the self-conscious tone of comedy because it doesn’t want you to take it seriously, but it hasn’t actually got many functioning jokes (though I do like Arnold’s “He’s kind of all over the place” after a baddie is exploded). This is probably deliberate. It’s a recent phenomenon also evident in shows like Emily in Paris. In the olden days, if a TV programme seemed self-aware it meant the creators were doing something sharp and deconstructive with that self-awareness. In the postmodern world of endlessly streaming content, the programme makers embrace the knowing wink only so that you know that they know what they have created is generic and unreal. It’s a hybrid comedy-drama form that is designed to have no stakes, no surprises and no tension. “Eat this, you pigs,” says everyone involved, and we gorge ourselves senseless because it is all so frictionless and familiar. And in the midst of it all, Arnold Schwarzenegger moves about clad in invisible quotation marks, a living, breathing meme in a culture endlessly recycling its greatest hits.