You may have noticed NBC spending a lot of time this summer promoting a fun espionage-romantic-dramedy about a pair of spies who have to balance their secret agent engagements and their romantic life, while holding down cover jobs in the service industry. They jet around the globe (mostly with the help of green screen on the Warner Brother lot) and fight shadowy conspiratorial forces, aided by a goofy sidekick and reporting to a stern intelligence contact, frequently finding themselves infiltrating parties and gala events dressed to the nines.
TV Review: NBC’s ‘Undercovers’
You may also have noticed that the fun espionage-romantic-dramedy in question wasn’t “Chuck.”
While “Chuck” maintained its status as NBC’s largely forgotten little-engine-that-barely-could, chugging along with fan and critical adulation, very little audience to speak of and only sporadic promotion, NBC’s new series “Undercovers” premieres on Wednesday (Sept. 22) accompanied by a mammoth marketing wave.
For the record: I don’t begrudge NBC prioritizing “Undercovers” over “Chuck.” The network gave “Chuck” a really big push last winter when it returned and the long-term impact was negligible. I’m happy to have “Chuck” back for as long as we have it back and I know that when it comes to marketing, “shiny and new” trumps “settled and familiar.” It has to.
Still, I get bogged down in the sense, as I see it, that “Undercovers” is basically a slicker, more expensive, less geeky (less enjoyable) version of “Chuck,” a show that NBC has already struggled to support for four years.
The big difference is that NBC is trying to hang “Undercovers” on the hook of J.J. Abrams’ name, ignoring that fans are smart enough by now to predict Abrams’ very limited involvement going forward and ignoring that Abrams’ name hasn’t exactly been a gateway to TV hit status in recent years.
More on “Undercovers” after the break…
When I write that “‘Undercovers’ is basically a slicker, more expensive, less geeky version of ‘Chuck,'” that’s not quite meant as an insult. I prefer “Chuck,” but the pilot for “Undercovers” is stylish, sexy and, at its best, quite fun.
Steven (Boris Kodjoe) and Samantha (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) Bloom are moderately successful caterers, dealing with all of the typical challenging of cooking and party planning. It’s a stressful job, but not nearly as stressful as their former gig as topline CIA agent. They’ve left that job behind for good, at least until Agency bigwig Carlton Shaw (Gerald McRaney) shows up to enlist their help in finding a former colleague (Carter MacIntyre). In no time, Steven and Samantha are working off the rust and jetting around the globe, aided by geeky sidekick Bill (Ben Schwartz), a junior agent with an impressive man-crush on Steven.
Written by Abrams and Josh Reims, “Undercovers” is high concept and approachable. It’s got a lot of “Chuck” to it, but the more obvious comparison would be to a less brooding “Alias” by way of “The Thin Man,” only without the dog.
In the pilot, there are a lot of different elements going on and none of them exactly emerge as strong enough to carry a show.
The spy stuff is straight-forward small screen action, boosted by Abrams’ energetic direction and a budget that was clearly tremendous. It’s still the usual attractive people and their stunt doubles fighting in clothes that are inappropriate for a brawl and running down hallways to escape fireballs and dangling from rooftops. Replacing the floating 3-D letters that identify cities in the Abrams-produced “Fringe,” “Undercovers” uses postcard tableaus to establish each new artificial international destination, including Fake Moscow, Fake Paris and Fake Madrid. There are now enough shows on TV working the same sort of slightly jokey, slightly muscular action and the medium may be looking for a director/choreographer capable of giving the genre an adrenaline boost. “Undercovers” won’t be that show.
The relationship aspects of the story are nicely played. Just as I enjoyed the clash between marital intimacy and espionage secrecy between Peter Gallagher and Kari Matchett on “Covert Affairs,” it’s a nice wrinkle that Steven and Samantha are happily married, but also have an entire past that they’ve kept secret from each other, both because of national security issues and because that’s what couples do sometimes. The whole “The spark had gone out of our relationship, but once we start spying, it’s back” thing is a bit too “Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” but that’s one of those pilot tropes that needn’t be repeated.
Kodjoe is the more known quantity in this duo and he delivers a sort of smooth, masculine performance. Watching him in the past, I’ve always thought that what was standing in the way of his stardom was a natural, almost icy, reserve. It isn’t quite gone here. Kodjoe is cool, but maybe too cool, even when paired with Mbatha-Raw who suffers from no such problems. The British actress is a terrific discovery, right down to an expertly masked accent. Mbatha-Raw seems to have easy emotional access and maybe she’ll help Kodjoe loosen up that tiny bit he needs. It’s almost a contractual requirement that any review refer to how pretty the stars are. And they are, indeed, mighty attractive.
Joining the stars on the spy side of things is the always welcome McRaney, who rarely fails deliver convincing, lived-in characters, and Schwartz, who is stuck playing the Morgan/Marshall role (depending on whether you’re more of a “Chuck” or “Alias” fan). Schwartz is a talented enough guy that they’ll eventually find a way to form the character to his strengths, rather than recycling the character from other shows.
The third aspect of the plot is the catering side of things and the “Undercovers” team has sounded determined to make sure that their catering front doesn’t suddenly disappear amidst the European baddies, fancy-dress galas and reignited marital sparks. They have an elaborate catering set and food advisors and everything. In the pilot, their new gig seems important to the characters themselves, but it hasn’t been explained how it will be important to the show. Food shows are hot, so maybe this will be a workable hybrid?
As I mentioned earlier, we all know Abrams’ pattern on Bad Robot shows. He’s initially incredibly involved and then he departs and leaves his partners — Reims, in this case — running things as he does movies or different TV shows. He’s a busy guy. Who’s to complain? But when Abrams is as central to a pilot as he is to “Undercovers,” there will always be a concern of where the show goes when the big name director and the big hype budget aren’t around anymore.
And if “Undercovers” just ends up being a less entertaining version of “Chuck” with a racial-barrier-breaking twist? That’s a show I’d probably watch, too. I just wonder if NBC has promised viewers more with those months of promotion.
“Undercovers” premieres at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 22 on NBC.