Christoph Waltz's face deserved a series. The breakout star of Quentin Tarantino's 2009 film "Inglourious Basterds" has long excelled at playing the finicky, penetrating villain. Observant, charismatic, he brings a physicality to his roles that intimidates precisely because it is neither imposing nor muscle-bound.
Prime Video's "The Consultant" spins a psychological thriller with comic overtones around that trademark malevolent courtesy. The result is deliciously creepy and not entirely coherent. It feels like a ghost story you hear around the campfire; uncanny and underexplained, but pleasing nevertheless.
The eight-episode series, created and written by Tony Basgallop, is an extremely loose adaptation of Bentley Little's 2015 novel of the same name. In both, a sinister consultant named Regus Patoff shows up to assess and advise a company in crisis called CompWare. His prescriptions and interventions become increasingly invasive and odd until it becomes clear to the employees that he has usurped control and no one is coming to stop him.
The book, narrated mainly from the perspective of Craig, a middle manager and dedicated family man, descends into full horror: run-of-the-mill mind games give way to nightmarish retreats and business meetings in rooms covered in blood. The series is more restrained and (to its credit) moves far more quickly. It opens with the murder — in his office — of the chief executive officer of CompWare, a mobile game developer based in Los Angeles. The victim, a socially stunted Korean prodigy named Sang (Brian Yoon), was already, at 20, revered as a genius and sinking under the pressure of running a multimillion dollar company. Waltz turns up while employees are reeling from the founder's death and announces he was hired by Sang to advise the ailing business and protect his legacy. One of his first actions is to install a statue of the CEO, nude, on the stairs. It's an effective shorthand for what the book does quite slowly: reveal the CEO as a risible figurehead and confront the employees with a power vacuum they must savagely compete to fill.
Observing all this are CompWare employees Craig (Nat Wolff), a coder whose pet project is a game called Upskirt Jungle, and Elaine (Brittany O'Grady), Sang's assistant, who retitles herself his "creative liaison" in a bid to improve her career prospects. Craig and Elaine have a history although he's currently engaged to Patti (Aimee Carrero), an observant Catholic for whom Craig is reluctantly converting.
"The Consultant" is almost entirely reducible to this foursome. O'Grady, who demonstrated a gift for channeling a micro-generation's specific brand of sociopathy in "The White Lotus," does some of her best work here. Wolff shines, too; his Craig is ambitious and amiable and cowardly, the kind of guy whose commitment to principle is secondary to being right. It's a good thing O'Grady and Wolff have compelling chemistry as skeptical co-conspirators trying to work out what Patoff is up to and who he really is because the world of the series is claustrophobically small — confined for the most part to the austere opulence of the CompWare offices while the principals play a rotating game of cat and mouse.
Despite doubling as a satire about the sulfurous upper echelons of corporate capitalism and the supremacy of the consultant class even over the companies they ostensibly serve, this is a surprisingly intimate series. It is not, that is to say — although we get some intriguing glimpses of Patoff's world — the kind of puzzle-box drama that rewards sleuthing. The stakes of the show aren't "What's really going on?" but rather the more psychological "Will it work?": Will Patoff manage to lure Craig and Elaine into a Hobbesian contest? Co-opt their ethical frameworks? Ruin Craig's relationship?
That focus on merely human questions is a refreshing twist in a moment awash with disappointing puzzle-boxes, even if many elements of "The Consultant" will feel familiar.
Implausible plot points — particularly a revelation concerning how Patoff convinces CEOs to sign on with him — rankle less when the "solution" to the mystery isn't the show's sole focus. Waltz's gift for playing not just brilliant but digressive bad guys pays off here. We can wonder why the consultant requires everyone to remove their shoes, for instance, or why he insists on asking for help dragging himself up the stairs in lieu of taking the elevator, and enjoy that the answer is likely to be baroque. These aren't just business-school dominance exercises. Patoff's intrusive ministrations have him gaslighting and tormenting his targets in ways that can't be justified under even the most brutal rubric of corporate efficiency. If this dents the show's capitalist allegories a little, it also improves the viewer's experience of the suspense. The devil is, indeed, in the details.