On paper, the idea of NBC”s new spy drama “Undercovers” (which debuts Wednesday at 8 p.m.) sounds fantastic: producer JJ Abrams takes all of the elements that worked best on his old show “Alias” (spy missions in glamorous locales, sexual chemistry between two very attractive leads) and ditches the stuff that was so often frustrating (the convoluted mythology, Jennifer Garner drowning in her own angst).
In reality, “Undercovers” is disappointing. There”s potential there for a fun show, but when Abrams is co-writing (with Josh Reims) and directing – a combination that in the past has produced two all-time great pilot episodes in “Alias” and “Lost” – you expect more than potential.
The German-born Boris Kodjoe and British-born Gugu Mbatha-Raw play a pair of married, all-American former spies, Steven and Samantha Bloom, who now run a catering business together. It”s a safe, happy life, but also a boring one (neither can remember the last time they danced together), so when CIA agent Carlton Shaw (Gerald McRaney) shows up to lure them out of retirement – and to work as partners for the first time – they gladly accept the offer.
“We’re about to start doing the thing we stopped doing so we could have a normal life together,” says Samantha. “It’s a little weird.”
“Well,” counters Steven, “maybe our normal life could use some excitement.”
There”s some excitement to be found in “Undercovers,” much of it from Mbatha-Raw. Abrams likes to write for strong women. The execution of that doesn”t always work out (see Kate on “Lost,” or Olivia for the first year or so of “Fringe”), but Mbatha-Raw”s Samantha is sexy and confident and, a time or three, funny, and very much lives up to what Garner brought back in the early ’00s.
Kodjoe has some good light moments, but is maybe a little too laid back. Everything seems to come easily to him – even a fight scene where he”s dangling off a Paris rooftop – and he”s most effective when playing straight man to new handler Bill Hoyt (Ben Schwartz), who reveals himself to be a slobbering Steven Bloom fanboy. (Marveling at a story from Steven”s file, Hoyt asks, “Are you a robot? Are you a half-robot?”)
“Undercovers” is, simply, a show that does many things reasonably well, but nothing spectacularly. “Chuck” does both the romance and comedy better (this show”s attempt to use the made-up word “sexpionage” as a running gag falls flat), “Human Target” has cooler fights (considering that Abrams is directing, the mediocre action is probably the most disappointing part of “Undercovers”), etc.
It”s worth noting that Kodjoe and Mbatha-Raw are both black, in roles that didn”t require actors of any particular ethnicity. But that piece of color-blind casting would be worth celebrating more if “Undercovers” was better than just the genial time provided by the pilot.
Again, there are pieces here that could lead to something much stronger. (To get back to “Chuck,” that show needed to get to its second season before everything clicked.) The two leads have nice chemistry, Schwartz and McRaney both provide some nice light moments in support, and there”s a hint of some bigger reason for the Blooms” reactivation that may please viewers who like a little mythology with their standalone missions.
But where the Blooms find that their first mission together has brought the passion back into their lives (Steven tells Samantha, “Watching you these past few days – it reminded me of you”), I mostly felt the pleasant ennui the two have in their catering life. Everything seems like it should be fantastic, but I wanted more.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org