Sep 25, 2010

TV Review: Undercovers Pilot (2010)

To be honest, I was expecting very little of Undercovers, NBC’s new romantic action series about married spies. True, it’s J.J. Abrams directing (and co-writing), which is a rarity on TV these days (now that he’s a fancy-schmancy film director), and it’s J.J. Abrams directing spies, which usually warrants outstanding results. (Alias pilot, anyone?) But the print ads were boring (I liked James Hibberd’s dismissal of the campaign in The Hollywood Reporter: “Let’s have a dangerous espresso!”), the extended trailer shown at upfronts was dull, the regular trailers looked unoriginal, and for the most part reviews were negative to lukewarm. So I went in with very low expectations... and I actually kind of enjoyed what I saw. (Don’t stop reading now, though; there are some huge qualifiers coming up ) Is it as good as Alias? Certainly not. Is it as good as Mission: Impossible III? No. Is it... good? Um, well, no, not really... but it’s still entertaining (especially if you have a very high threshold for what entertains you when it comes to spies, which I do), and sometimes entertaining is more important than good. This is a lighter-weight fluff than we’ve ever seen before from J.J. Abrams. It’s so derivative (including from his own Alias) that you literally know everything that’s going to happen before it happens. There are no surprises. And I kind of like that. I’d call it a guilty pleasure except that both words feel a bit extreme: it’s not bad enough to prompt any guilt, but it also probably won’t generate that much pleasure in most viewers.

Other than Alias, the shows that Undercovers feels most derived from are 80s shows: Remington Steele, Hart to Hart and, to my personal pleasure, Scarecrow and Mrs. King (review here). These shows were also light and fluffy and certainly aren’t critical milestones, but there’s really nothing else like them on TV anymore, so I found the totally unoriginal Undercovers fairly refreshing. It is to those romantic adventure shows what Human Target is to the male-dominated action hours of that era, like The A-Team or my favorite 80s television series, Magnum P.I.: not as good, but good enough to evoke nostalgia. So I don’t mind Undercovers’ lack of originality, but it does have some other faults that can’t be as easily excused.

What passes for a romantic plot often gets in the way of what passes for the spy plot. For example, the couple risks exposing themselves by pausing for what’s supposed to be a sexy dance in the middle of their mission. One might expect a writer of Abrams’ caliber to use that moment to inject some conflict between the characters’ romantic and professional goals, and have the romance-based decision cost them on the spy front. He doesn’t, however; they’re not exposed and they don’t pay for their choice at all. Instead, all the audience gets out of it is a dance–and not even a very good one. As far as big spy dance scenes go, these two can’t compare with Sean Connery or even Arnold Schwarzenegger and their respective tango partners Worse still for a romantic spy comedy, while the leads generate decent chemistry, their dialogue fails to sparkle like the exchanges between Stephanie Zimbalist and Pierce Brosnan or Kate Jackson and Bruce Boxleitner. For this series to work, they will require some genuine banter, not lame jokes about “sexpionage” (a word that Abrams and his co-writer Josh Reims seem to think that they made up–and also seem to think is much funnier than it is–which, here, is not at all). “You look pretty hot yourself” simply doesn’t cut it as romantic repartee; the writers of Undercovers need to brush up on their Thin Mans if they want to figure out how to generate genuine romance between married adventurers.

Undercovers’ Nick and Nora are Steven and Samantha Bloom, played by Boris Kodjoe and Gugu Mbatha-Raw. (Nice try, guys, but it takes more than alliterative names to equal Mr. and Mrs. Charles!) They met and fell in love while both working for the CIA, but quit the secret agent biz because they worried that the secrecy and deception would be bad for their marriage. Five years later they run a successful catering company. What is J.J. Abrams’ obsession with attractive black women running catering companies and restaurants? Remember the fabulous first season episodes of Alias, and how the only really boring parts were when the show cut away to Sydney’s friend Francie trying to start–and later running–her own restaurant? Did you ever say to yourself, “I wish there were a whole show just about Francie’s restaurant?” No, nobody did, but that’s almost what Undercovers gives us. Luckily, we’re mercifully saved by the appearance of 80s TV vet Gerald McRaney (Simon and Simon).

McRaney shows up as a grizzled, all-business career CIA agent, Carlton Shaw (great name!), and implores the two former agents to return to the fold. His deadpan delivery alone is nearly enough to grant this series a season pass on your TiVo. McRaney only gets a few scenes in the pilot, but he’s awesome in them and steals the show out from under its leads. They hem and haw and refuse and then, as you already know from the trailers, they both turn up at his office independently and behind the other’s back. When they realize they were each thinking the same thing, they say yes, they’ll take him up on his offer and spy again. (His office, by the way, is one of those CIA offices based in sunny SoCal that bothered me so much on Alias. It just makes me thankful once more for Covert Affairs, a spy show actually set in Langley and Washington!)

As soon as the spy couple are back in the game, we get the genuinely horrible opening title sequence: clips of them in action in the middle of a spinning wedding ring. The ring then somehow turns into the "C" in UnderCovers, the title itself in a particularly bland and generic–if shiny–font. It could easily be lifted straight out of the 1991 married spy series Undercover (no "S"); it certainly doesn’t look any more modern than that. But you know what? I’m going to cut the show some slack on this front, too. As with its premise, I found the dated nature of its titles kind of charming.

The spy hijinks are the usual stuff: breaking into a bank in Madrid, jumping out of a plane to infiltrate a wedding (huh?), then revealing themselves to be wearing a suit and dress, respectively, under their jump suits like Sean Connery in Goldfinger, getting into fights on Paris rooftops. Not one sequence will surprise you, but they’re all slickly directed by Abrams–particularly Kodjoe’s Parisian roof battle. You can see everything coming in both the spy plot (“Are they aware of the real reason they’ve been reactivated?” “No!”) and the romantic plot (“How do you know so much about this agent we’re supposed to be saving?” “Because we used to date!”) I’m paraphrasing, but you get the idea.

What works well is the comedy. Bits with a comic relief backup agent named Hoyt (Ben Schwartz) who hero-worships Steven but ignores his wife could have so easily played as grating, but Schwartz and Abrams somehow make them hilarious. The lackey constantly compliments Steven throughout the mission, both in person and in his ubiquitous earpiece. (“Great work with that camera, Mr. Bloom!”) He also runs through a catalog of Steven’s past successes (he’s studied his file), and he’s particularly impressed by “the Senegal incident.” (“Are you a robot? Are you half robot?”) Between Schwartz and McRaney (who manages to maintain the dignity of his character while providing top-notch comic relief–even when not wearing pants!), the comedy angle is well covered, which is a good thing in a show this lighthearted.

The production values are also praiseworthy. I’m sure even J.J. Abrams didn’t really fly around the world to film this pilot, but he did find good locations and mixed them well with stock establishing shots to at least achieve this effect. If it’s the old Alias “Burbank as Barcelona” routine, then it’s handled very well. In a variation on the Alias captions introducing each city its spies visited, the foreign locales on Undercovers are introduced with a whole CGI postcard image listing their names in two languages. It’s not quite as effective as the cool place names in Quantum of Solace (one of the very few areas in which you’ll ever catch me praising that movie), but it does the job well for television. These postcards are of course accompanied by raps in whatever language/dialect is appropriate to the locale, which is the new favorite cross-media method of establishing a foreign location for American audiences.

The finale comes in Moscow–in a warehouse, no less–of course–and the bad guys shoot a whole lot of rockets around that warehouse without ever injuring (or even really posing the threat of injury to) our main characters. Samantha grabs one of the rocket launchers for herself and shoots it out of a taxi she’s stolen while driving, exploding a fleeing villain’s car but naturally not killing him. If that’s not the modern equivalent of Scarecrow and Mrs. King (pretty much the same exact scenarios, simply upping the ante in the armament department), then I don’t know what is. The espionage, it should probably go without saying, is also on about the same level of realism as Scarecrow and Mrs. King. Which is to say, not at all real. This is pure fantasy–even moreso than Alias, and that had actual fantasy in it!

In the end, it’s set up so that the Blooms can still have their catering company, but also work for the Company on the side, taking on assignments that the CIA can’t afford to be officially associated with. This freelance arrangement gives Abrams the scenario that he strived for in the first season of Alias but ultimately abandoned: a chance to explore spies balancing personal lives with secret ones. That’s not a very fresh notion anymore, and Covert Affairs is handling it much better than Undercovers at the moment, so if this show somehow makes it to another season, I’d expect Steven and Samantha to probably become full time spies again. (Although I doubt Samantha’s annoying sister will end up shot dead on the kitchen floor and replaced by a deadly double. This really isn’t that sort of show!)

You can predict everything that happens on Undercovers before it happens (you just know the bad guy is going to shoot the henchman who delivers him bad news...) and the show delivers no surprises. But as I said in my intro, I sort of like that. It’s like watching a favorite movie, where you know all the scenes already, or singing along with a favorite song when it comes on the radio. It’s comfort food. And in that regard, even though it’s exactly like plenty of spy shows that have come before it, it still manages to be unlike anything else currently on the air. If the writers manage to make the currently tepid romance sparkle a bit, and better integrate it with the action (ideally creating at least a bit of non-rote conflict between the lead characters’ romantic and professional ambitions), then it might even grow into a great show in its own right. The voiceover announcing, “Here are scenes from next week’s Undercovers” at the end embodies the tone of the show fairly nicely. “If anyone asks... you haven’t seen them.” It’s an old joke, but it still works. If that appeals to you, give the show a try.


Rob Buckley said...

Excellent review. I couldn't muster the enthusiasm to do that much but I think you liked it more than me. Surprised you didn't make any comparisons with NBC's other spy show, Chuck, since that's essentially what this is, just not as well executed!

Unemployed Soap Viewer said...

Finally watched the pilot and found it quite lacklustre. Gugu was charming, but the annoying sister and Hoyt have got to go! Boris was dull. However, my 70-something Mom in the Bronx LOVES the show! So there you have it: UNDERCOVERS: the spy show for your urban Mom!