Undercovers debuts tonight on NBC at 8 p.m. Eastern.
The idea of a J.J. Abrams-produced spy caper series minus the complex mythology and serialized storytelling is both attractive and off-putting. I recently rewatched the note-perfect Alias pilot and remembered how excited I was about that show when it debuted. No one could have convinced me then that the shimmering red sphere of water was going to lead to so much metaphysical hooey, so many goofy storylines, so much disappointment. But that’s how all shaped up, so part of me is seduced by the idea of a show like Alias that is unencumbered by an element like the Cult of Rambaldi. At the same time, what exactly is so great about that? Granted, the Abrams-helmed Mission: Impossible III is the best of that series, mostly thanks to his willingness to self-plagiarize from Alias, but that’s a movie. An Abrams series without the overarching mysteries is kind of like a pop out cake without the naked lady inside.
It’s almost a shame, then, that Undercovers comes with the Abrams pedigree, because now rather than to be focused on what it is, I’ll be focused on what it’s not. Undercovers is a breezy, unambitious spy caper drama, not unlike USA’s Covert Affairs or TNT’s Leverage. The stars are gorgeous (and their names, Boris Kodjoe and Gugu Mbatha-Raw, are soooo fun to say together) and the story, self-contained though it may be, is fairly well-executed. They jet off to far-flung destinations to carry out their missions, announced by stylized title cards in an Alias-y flourish, so it’s all very nice to look at, and diverting enough. But is diverting enough…enough? Perhaps, but I think it’ll take Undercovers a couple more weeks to figure out how to balance the stew.
Kodjoe and Mbatha-Raw play Steven and Samantha Bloom, a pair of deactivated spies who fell in love, married, and opened a catering company along with Samantha’s younger sister Lizzie (Mekia Cox), who is always going to wait until a very inopportune time to call with a catering question, ‘cause what else would she do? A typically gruff Gerald McRaney comes to the Blooms to ask them to find a fellow agent, Leo Nash (Carter MacIntyre.) They are hesistant, naturally. They are out of the game now, with a quiet, married, normal life, and who would want to go back to all of that excitement and intrigue and adrenaline-pumping adventure when they could pick out ramekins for a cute dessert? The Blooms want to go back to that, you see, because there’s passion missing in their relationship, and the memories of the lives they led before settling for domestic routine makes them long for something more. So after, say, three or four minutes of soul searching, they are wheels-up on the hunt for Nash.
Kodjoe and Mbatha-Raw are both appealing, and have a natural rapport with each other that, when paired with the playfully sniping dialogue, makes them feel like a real married couple. That’s part of the issue with Undercovers. The leads are a little too comfortable with each other. There’s some small potential for tension considering they made a pledge to each other to keep each other in the dark about their pre-marriage confidential missions, but the relationship isn’t quite dynamic enough. Though the show will be compared to Mr. and Mrs. Smith, that comparison isn't really fair—those two were pitted against each other. I feel like there needs to be one more element to complicate matters, and Samantha’s sister Lizzie is likely not going to cut it. Samantha is Lizzie’s boss, after all, and the power dynamic of their relationship doesn’t make it seem particularly important, other than for reasons of national security, to keep Lizzie in the dark about the whole thing. Who cares if she finds out? The theme that seems to attract Abrams to stories about spies is the care and feeding of a double life, how people interact with loved ones and build relationships on a foundation of white lies and pretend business trips. That element isn’t at play here. The most important people in the story already know exactly who the Blooms are, including the Blooms themselves.
The bigger issue with Undercovers, though, and one I sincerely hope they fix in a hurry, is that it doesn’t seem quite clever enough just yet. An early sequence in which the Blooms sneak into a bank to purloin some video footage is a bit facile, and even a little silly. The Blooms don jumpsuits and, looking as suspicious as Michael and Dwight in the “Branch Wars” episode of The Office, are given access to the bank’s nerve center under the auspices of performing a security update. The bank manager is alerted, and they flee. In another sequence, Samantha engages in “sexpionage” (their term, not mine) to grab a mark’s cell phone. With shows like Burn Notice and Leverage as its contemporaries, Undercovers is going to have a put a whole lot more effort into the sleight-of-hand than what is demonstrated in the pilot.
The funny thing about the show is that even when I was wanting it to be more than it was, which was often, I was sort of liking it, and that mostly due to Kodjoe and Mbatha-Raw. The two of them are so charming together that it’s hard to imagine withholding my goodwill from them, even if the series isn’t quite living up to them yet. But it could. Without the burdens of introducing characters and setting up the basic premise, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a totally satisfying adventure in the second episode, and something much more representative of the show Undercovers actually is.
- Ben Schwartz is here as a sycophant, something he proved he could do as the irrepressible douche Jean-Ralphio in Parks and Recreation.
- I’m sure I wasn’t the only one wincing during Boris Kodjoe’s fight sequence. Stay away from the face, nameless baddies. The face is the money.
- I hope there is something very interesting about “the real reason” the Blooms were reactivated, something that hints at a larger mission or adventure, rather than just something that will fuel a marital argument.