The Spies Who Should Have Stayed Home: A Review of Undercovers
- Friday, October 29, 2010
The heyday of the spy genre was the 1960s, when, following in the success of the James Bond films, a slew mostly forgettable movies and television shows tried to capture the cool ambience and excitement of 007. Several classic shows emerged from that trend including The Man from U.N.C.L.E., I Spy and, in a mash-up of espionage and cowboys, The Wild Wild West. Since then, Bond has continued as the immortal agent but it's hard to think of later spy shows that distinguished themselves. The 21st century saw some excitement in the series Alias, about a young woman, Sidney Bristow, leading the life of a double agent while assuming various identities, hence the title. Created by J. J, Abrams, the show quickly developed a cult following for Sidney's complexly plotted adventures made more interesting by the emotional strain of her job exacerbated by conflicts with her spymaster father.
After the success of Lost, and his breakthrough in film directing (Mission Impossible 3, Star Trek) Abrams has concocted another spy series, Undercovers, about a married couple who have left their CIA careers to live in wedded bliss and run a catering business. Steven and Samantha Bloom (Boris Kodjoe, Gugu Mbatha-Raw) are called back into service by a grouchy senior agency officer, played by Gerald McRaney since apparently, there's just no one else on active duty who can do the job better.
Each week the couple is sent on a new globe-trotting adventure where they can employ nifty new gadgets and wear great clothes—this isn't anywhere close to a realistic look at the CIA; the production values are gorgeous and the locales seem authentic, whether it's Paris, Moscow or some more exotic city. But the real visual attractions are the Blooms themselves, particularly Kodjoe, who, in looks makes the attractive Mbatha-Raw seem plain. The problem is, the man is simply too beautiful but, alas, that's all he is— possessing little if any charm, he walks through the scenes with little range of emotion, speaking in the same tone of voice all the time. He really belongs in GQ ads—tall, brown and with a great bald head, his looks alone, likely to be confused with the Old Spice guy's, don't make an interesting character and the Blooms come off as a rather boring couple whose supposed entertaining quality is that they are dealing with domestic issues like their catering business while carrying out secret missions. The dialogue, which is supposed to pass for cute spousal banter, makes them really seem as dull as the next door neighbors. If Nick and Nora Charles, from the classic MGM Thin Man series, are the gold standard in adventurous spouses, the Blooms are the tin standard.
But that's not all, they are given an assistant, Bill Hoyt, a nerdy sycophant who worships Steven as his spy idol but who's apparently been given a license to annoy the Blooms and especially the audience who will not believe a CIA operative would be so unprofessionally adoring.
The biggest surprise on the show is that after Abrams, having built his reputation as a brilliantly creator of intriguing television series based in mystery, and complex characterizations, would, with co-creator Josh Reims, produce a series whose very title exhibits such a lack of originality. It's like finding out his dream project is to make a secret agent version of Hart to Hart. In one scene, the couple has staked out a suspect at a hotel pool; Samantha, wearing a shear swim suit and a British accent, pretends to make a pass at the man. Both she and Steven are wearing the ear pieces now ubiquitous in action series, that allow them to keep the husband and wifely banter flowing while he watches her put the moves on the man, who, along with other folks around the pool, might be wondering why these people keep talking to themselves. Steve is bothered that they have to work with an old CIA date of Samantha's but that is the extent of any marital friction. The hottest this couple get is when they're in their company's kitchen checking the oven for a cake's progress. NBC just ordered more episodes of the series so here's some unsolicited advice for Abrams and Reims, both of whom have done such distinguished work in the past: Give the Blooms more sharply defined personalities and more than one layer to their characters. Audiences loved Abrams earlier shows because he knew how to create rounded and complex characters and intriguing stories. Maybe the show's creators think that there's enough grim realism in television today and they want to zig to fluffy escapism while others are zagging toward heavy drama.
There's a well-circulated video of J. J. Abrams's addressing a conference on his love of mystery and how he uses it to fire the imaginations of his audience. But there's really nothing mysterious or even interesting about Undercovers, certainly not the eye candy leads or the rather conventional cases they pursue. Spy stories should intrigue us. It's not too late to have a really big surprise or a truly threatening enemy upset the dull proceedings, raise the stakes and save this new show from being what a secret agent series should never be: dull.
Undercovers, Wednesdays 10:00pm est, NBC
**This Review First Published October 29, 2010
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