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April 23, 2014

'Undercovers' Premiere Review: A Slick, Slight Spy Caper

by Maureen Ryan, posted Sep 22nd 2010 11:00AM
'Undercovers' (8PM ET Wednesday, NBC) looks great.

But if you're looking for anything more than superficial eye-candy, you may be disappointed by this J.J. Abrams-Josh Reims espionage drama, which ditches much of what was good about Abrams' previous spy show, 'Alias,' and replaces it with, well, a whole lot of pretty-looking nothing.

'Undercovers' stars two appealing actors, Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Boris Kodjoe, as Steven and Samantha Bloom, a husband-and-wife catering team who gave up the spy life five years ago. It will not surprise you when they are called back to duty and must execute super-suave secret operations in a series of attractive foreign locales. (One of the takeaways from 'Undercovers' is that Abrams, who directed the pilot for the show, missed his calling as an interior designer. Everything about the show looks fabulous -- even allegedly decrepit interiors are fabulously decrepit.)

But what lurks under the surface -- under the covers, if you will -- are truths about relationships that will also fail to surprise you. Love isn't always easy, it emerges. Even when both parties in a marriage are attractive and devoted, sometimes life runs them so ragged that they forget to appreciate each other. Visit your local greeting-card shop for additional examples of 'Undercovers'-style wisdom.

The gimmick of the show's premise is that when Steven and Samantha were CIA agents, they worked separately, and they have never talked about what they'd done in the past. So they're learning things about each other, but 'Undercovers' seems so aggressively focused on telling self-contained, episodic stories, that those personal and professional revelations seem bound to be as cheerfully banal and inconsequential as everything else about the show.

Since 'Alias' went off the air a few years ago, there's been a certain amount of spin about what went wrong with that show, some of it from its creator, Abrams. Let me state this loud and clear: Some of us quite liked the show's mythology, especially in its first couple of seasons. Sure, things got too dense and silly later in the show's run, but, without going into brain-numbing detail, suffice it to say that there were a bunch of things that went wrong with 'Alias' in its later years. To excuse all its problems by saying what 'Undercovers' appears to be saying -- i.e., "Mythologies can be tricky! Let's get rid of them!" -- is just a shortsighted and disappointing take on what works and doesn't work about that kind of show.

I'm not asking that 'Undercovers' ape 'Alias' or 'Lost,' for that matter. I'm asking that it recognize that we see weekly espionage-flavored operations on many, many TV shows these days. Unless we care about the people executing these maneuvers (as is the case with the enjoyable 'Chuck' and the increasingly terrific 'Fringe'), they just seem like the same old moves in fancier clothes. (Sidebar: If you'd given up on 'Fringe' [9PM ET Thursdays, Fox], I highly recommend reconnecting with the show this season. It got really good about midway through Season 2 by focusing on the kind of challenging interpersonal relationships and well-constructed mythological elements that 'Undercovers' appears desperate to avoid.)

All in all, 'Undercovers' appears determined to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The whole point of the show is to display super sexy spies having cool adventures and getting to know each other again as they try to put the spark back into their marriage. There's nothing necessarily objectionable about that, but forgive me if I expect more from a series that J.J. Abrams is involved in (though, given the number of TV and film projects on his plate these days, I'm guessing his involvement on the small-screen side is minimal at best).

Having said all that, 'Undercovers' is not a chore to watch. Gerald McRaney, who plays the Blooms' grumpy and unimpressed handler, is among the show's chief pleasures, and Ben Schwartz, who plays the agents' field-support nerd, is energetically enthusiastic (though the character could be dialed down a few notches). Mbutu-Raw and Kodjoe do well with the pilot's breezy banter and the show's production values are top-notch.

I'll keep watching, in the hopes that 'Undercovers' does not remain weightless and rote underneath its glossy exterior.


Follow @MoRyan on Twitter.

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Susan Stamos

I'm feeling the show, the action and the exotic locations! NBC has posted a scavenger hunt game that lets you test your spy skills. Check it out here: http://www.nbc.com/undercovers/spy-hunt/

October 05 2010 at 5:35 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
CParis

Sorry, but Undercovers is beautiful to watch, but not worth wasting an hour every week. The plot was very thin - like an episode of the 70s show Hart to Hart - I was just a kid when that was on, and was bored then, too!

September 26 2010 at 1:26 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Jimmy

Thanks, for the review Mo! I will give it a try.

Sometime ago you recommended that I watch Clone wars animated series - thanks- I love it!

September 22 2010 at 7:57 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Isaac

Am I correct in calling this the only current network hour-long drama with African-American leads? It's long (long) overdue but they should at least hype themselves a little bit for doing it.

September 22 2010 at 6:26 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Craig Ranapia

It's a shame because I really enjoyed Gugu Mbatha-Raw in her recurring role as Martha's sister in series three of 'Doctor Who'.

But I wouldn't be quite as harsh of Abrams' "spin" as you are. While I'm often frustrated by network's aversion to heavily "serialized" shows with black hole dense mythology (which I love more often than not), I do understand it. And, honestly, yes 'Alias' towards the end did have a lot a other problems other than the increasingly convoluted and tedious Rambaldi b.s., when when the likes of Victor Garber, Ron Rifkin and Lena Olin and her billion evil sisters (Sonia Braga and Isabella Rosellini) -- all of whom apparently had affairs with everyone else at some point - are BORING? Houston, we have a crisis.

September 22 2010 at 3:30 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
cindy

I won't watch anything by J.J. Abrams .. he butchered LOST!

September 22 2010 at 12:39 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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