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Spy romp Whiskey Cavalier has a lot of personality for a show with that name

Scott Foley (left), Lauren Cohan
Photo: ABC
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Whiskey Cavalier is doomed, and that sucks. The new drama is a bunch of kicky fun, it’s launching off the back of this year’s Oscar telecast, it’s headlined by a former star of basic cable’s biggest show, and it boasts a writing team that includes the guy who created Scrubs. And yet it’s still, frustratingly, almost certainly dead in the water. Nearly a decade after Bill Lawrence welcomed viewers to Cougar Town, his latest effort for ABC has been saddled with its own bad title, which is even more of a disservice in this day and age, when Whiskey Cavalier has to compete with hundreds of more shows than that covertly winning Courteney Cox sitcom did, with names far more descriptive.

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Here’s an unscientific sampling of what other A.V. Club staffers thought a show called Whiskey Cavalier might be about:

  • “medieval mixologist”
  • “an adventurous spaniel”
  • “either a cowboy or one of these dudes who shows up at a struggling bar and tells them how to fix things”
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Some of the answers in this game of TV Hot And Cold are warmer than others, but none so burning up as to identify that Whiskey Cavalier refers to the codename of uncommonly sensitive, recently dumped FBI agent Will Chase (Scott Foley). The softest boy in all of U.S. intelligence—whom multiple characters sincerely refer to as “Whiskey” in the pilot—is teamed with emotionally closed-off CIA operative Francesca “Frankie” Trowbridge (a.k.a. “Fiery Tribune,” played by Walking Dead survivor Lauren Cohan) to head a ragtag interagency team consisting of an Edward Snowden-type hacker (Tyler James Williams), a master profiler (Ana Ortiz), and a fashionable gadget guy (Vir Das). Williams’ character, Edgar Standish, finds the pulse of the situation between Will and Frankie—and what will undoubtedly be a major factor moving forward—from the backseat of the very first speeding vehicle they all share together: “A lot of sexual tension in the car.”

That tension recalls a recent, long-running ABC favorite, Castle, but Whiskey Cavalier also calls back to flirty, frothy blends of screwball comedy and cases of the week, like Moonlighting, Hart To Hart, or Remington Steele. The difference being that Remington Steele is the evocative name you make up for an invented partner that happens to fit Pierce Brosnan like a three-piece suit, and Whiskey Cavalier is a moniker intended to anonymize.

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And yet there are plenty of flashes of personality within the two episodes of Whiskey Cavalier screened for critics. Foley, now 20 years removed from playing the “loser guy friend” in the Felicity love triangle, deftly handles Will’s hopeless romantic qualities; he earns one of the biggest laughs in the premiere when Will gets distracted by a Parisian marriage proposal, wiping away a tear with the hand that’s still holding his gun. Its flourishes like that, or the way Will and Frankie throw themselves into cover identities (and use those covers to get in little digs at one another), that make Whiskey Cavalier such a joyously odd duck within the infinite flock of network procedurals about investigative teams working out of high-tech HQs. The Whiskey Cavalier crew works out of a fake basement bar called The Dead Drop; they’re overseen by one of Lawrence’s top repertory players, lantern-jawed Cougar Town doofus Josh Hopkins. The soundtrack makes excellent use of familiar pop songs being covered in a variety of European tongues, smartly paired to actual European locations.

The show walks a tonal tightrope with ease, though there are some spots where it feels caught between television worlds. The pilot—which brings the team together by pitting Will and Frankie against one another in a race to locate Edgar and the classified intel he’s swiped from the State Department—stretches its plot and rushes through interpersonal beats. It gives off the odd sensation that it would play better either as a tighter half-hour affair or an extended movie-length intro with more time to delve into the characters, though it might come off as a live-action Archer with less bite in the former case.

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There’s also the matter of the chemistry between Whiskey and Fiery, which is a make-or-break component and, in the early going, is largely the product of the banter and not the actors delivering it. Cohan’s given the tallest order of the main ensemble, tasked with playing stoic and determined and solitary (qualities that are underlined by other people’s dialogue) in a way that doesn’t always spark with Foley’s over-empathizer. They’re being pointed toward “she’s going to get him to be less of a wimp and he’s going to get her to lighten up a little,” but nothing from the first two episodes that goes in that direction is as interesting as, say, their respective connection to Ortiz’s Susan Sampson, who serves as Will’s shoulder to cry on and a great admirer of the way Frankie gets things done.

Perhaps the nothingness of the title rankles so much because a show like Whiskey Cavalier, in spite of its shortcomings, deserves more of a shot in today’s TV landscape. ABC tried something similar last summer with the more overt Castle clone Take Two; Netflix’s attempt to capture some of USA’s old blue-skies magic, The Good Cop, was similarly one-and-done. Maybe the concern is way off base; maybe the ambiguousness of the title will spur curiosity, and a great number of people will tune in to find a winsome spy caper when they thought it might be something about a group of soldiers who don’t play by the rules. Will Chase has already had his heartbroken once; don’t force him to go through that all over again.

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