Dozens of U.K. shows have been adapted for American audiences over the years, from Top Of The Pops and Steptoe & Son to The Office and American Idol. That adaptation stream flows both ways, though, with the Brits eating up our Card Sharks and rechristening our Golden Girls. But Peter Moffat’s Undercover is one of the only series to make that transatlantic journey with its origins in doubt—this legal drama feels like something that Hollywood could have created just as readily as the Beeb.
It’s more than a filial attachment, Dennis Haysbert’s familiar face, or the slick direction. The political climate and strained (to put it mildly) race relations depicted in the series could play out on either side of the ocean, and they do in this mostly compelling drama from the creator of The Night Of, which was itself developed for HBO from Moffat’s Criminal Justice. Hot off the success of the American adaptation of his own series, Moffat doesn’t hold anything back in Undercover, which has already premiered in the U.K. There’s suspense, courtroom theatrics, social relevance, and several exceptional performances from the leads on display here.
With both countries undergoing major transitions—England’s Brexit and America’s poised return to supposed greatness with president-elect Donald Trump—Moffat’s well-equipped to draw timely and apt parallels. But instead of focusing on the xenophobia that led to those two developments, he opens wounds that would be older if they’d ever healed. Racism isn’t a thing of the past on either side of the Atlantic, and the struggles of black people in both countries come to light in Undercover. The similarities in the treatment of black men are so striking that you’ll find yourself checking which side of the car the steering wheel is on to keep up with Maya Cobbina’s (a luminous Sophie Okonedo) frequent jumps across the puddle.
Maya’s a well-respected criminal defense lawyer, whose penchant for lost causes sees her trying to solve a decades-old murder while fending off the conclusion to a decades-long legal battle. We first meet her during a visit with Death Row inmate Rudy Jones (Haysbert), whose appeals and time are up. The botched execution is agonizing for client and lawyer, and Maya vows to fulfill Rudy’s wish that she “go big” by dismantling the racist system that disproportionately incarcerates black men—and go international with her cause.
Detailing Maya’s fight could definitely fill out the series’ six hours, and it would be a worthy endeavor. But there’s so much more for Maya (and Moffat) to unpack. In addition to fighting for Rudy’s life—which he’s clinging to after first struggling with his executioners—she’s also still trying to solve the murder of her friend and fellow activist Michael Antwi (Sope Dirisu). Could Maya have two state-sanctioned executions on her hands? Or are they both murders?
The drama and mystery follow Maya out of the courtroom and police station into her home, where she thinks she’s been living with her like-minded husband Nick (Adrian Lester) and their three beautiful children. But her legal acumen hasn’t prevented her from being duped for 20 years by an undercover police officer. Though Nick volunteered to infiltrate Antwi’s anti-racism group, the ruse weighs heavily on him—at least, whenever it looks like he might be revealed. The happy marriage was an unintended result of Nick’s mission, which he all but gave up after the birth of their first child. But, just as Maya’s never let go of the case that propelled her into her historic appointment as the first black Director Of Public Prosecutions, Nick can’t shake his handler.
This undercover operation and its government backing are in the same wheelhouse as Maya’s murder case and death penalty fight. They raise questions about civil liberties and their abuse by, in any given episode, everyone from government officials to beat cops. Planting dissidents among protestors is an established law enforcement practice, so Undercover isn’t wanting for talking points in its timely discussion. Again, we have a subject that could probably hold viewers’ attention throughout the series’ run—to say nothing of all the implications of the double lives led by Maya and Nick.
Like his protagonist, Moffat goes for broke, traveling between genres and barreling his way to a climax in the form of a civics lesson. It’s an admirable effort, but the former barrister should have had a lighter hand in doling out the twists. Early on, he’s able to deftly switch between legal drama and espionage-tinged thriller. But, as in Nick’s life, these two paths prove too unwieldy for him. The curves Moffat throws (at himself) to build suspense or provide misdirection often undercut the gravity of the more emotionally resonant scenes. Okonedo and Lester shine in their roles as marrieds and determined professionals; their performances keep the whole thing from completely going off the rails, even during the goofy conclusion. Undercover isn’t exactly a misstep for Moffat, but it does lack the focus we’re accustomed to seeing in his work.