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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

TV review: Robert Downey Jr. spoils ‘The Sympathizer’

Hoa Xuande, left, and Robert Downey Jr. in “The Sympathizer.”  (HBO)
By Neal Justin Star Tribune

“The Sympathizer,” an intriguing adaptation of the 2015 novel by Viet Thanh Nguyen, is a portrait of the Captain, a North Vietnamese mole who is torn between his love for American pop culture and his loyalty to the Communist party.

But his struggle keeps getting interrupted by a familiar face.

Robert Downey Jr., fresh off his Oscar win for “Oppenheimer,” takes on four different versions of the Ugly American, all malicious manipulators who use the Captain for political purposes. Downey has lots of fun finding different ways to ham it up, especially when he’s playing a racist congressman who talks like Clint Eastwood. But the seven episodes start to feel more like an acting exercise than a black comedy about our country’s relationship with Vietnam.

Other performers have successfully slipped into various roles in the same project, most notably Peter Sellers in “Dr. Strangelove” and Alec Guinness in “Kind Hearts and Coronets.” But this time out, the idea feels like a distraction.

The story of the Captain, played by the engaging Hoa Xuande, is too riveting to play second fiddle to a stunt. Downey, who also serves as an executive producer, will bring a lot more eyeballs to the series than it would have gotten without him on screen. But he would have served the story better if he had just settled on one psychopath.

The limited series premieres at 9 p.m. ET Sunday on HBO.

Other shows to watch‘Tropic Thunder’: The scenes in “The Sympathizer” revolving around the production of a Vietnam War film may tempt you to revisit this 2008 hit with a similar theme. Do it. Downey earned an Oscar nomination by channeling an actor so committed to his role as a Black soldier that he undergoes pigmentation alteration surgery. The over-the-top comedy has a bevy of star turns, including Ben Stiller, who wants to be seen as more than a Rambo replica, and Jack Black as a drug-addicted comic best known for passing gas. Stick around for the finale in which an unrecognizable Tom Cruise, playing a hot-headed producer, throws himself a one-man dance party. Showtime on Demand, Peacock, Paramount+

‘Law & Order: SVU’: The procedural’s star Mariska Hargitay returns to the director’s chair for the ninth time, which is pretty impressive even when you consider there have been over 550 episodes. This time, her character, Olivia Benson, must find a way to tell her adopted son that his biological father was a rapist. Hargitay takes the same no-nonsense, no-frills approach to her directorial duties as she does to her acting. It’d be interesting to see what she would do supervising a project outside the trappings of the “L&O” universe. 9 p.m. Thursday, NBC

‘Patti Stanger: The Matchmaker’: The “Millionaire Matchmaker” star vows that her new series won’t be limited to only wealthy suitors. But in the first episode, all the prospects are rich and/or famous. Once again, Stanger seems more drawn to the size of someone’s wallet than the size of their hearts. 8 p.m. Thursday, CW

‘Neal Brennan: Crazy Good’: The co-creator of “Chappelle’s Show” doesn’t look like a troublemaker. But his brand of comedy reveals just how much he likes to stir things up. In his latest special, Brennan makes the case that greatness is usually achieved by psychopaths and drug addicts. Netflix