'Undercovers' Review: Familiar Formula, Very Well Executed

As the fourth-rated broadcast TV network, NBC has made plenty of mistakes during the past few years, under now-ousted CEO Jeff Zucker. These failures actually arose from NBC’s longtime corporate culture and mission, which have been in place since the 1950s: an emphasis on specials and spectacular ideas as opposed to creating solid entertainment.

It was NBC’s ambitions, inherited from the innovative TV programmer Sylvester “Pat” Weaver in the 1950s, that led to expensive, high-concept shows such as Kings, Heroes, The Event, and the like (note the high-flown titles of these series). Even last season’s Tonight Show debacle can be seen as part of this trend, an attempt at innovation and specialness on the cheap.


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This approach has failed at least as often as it has succeeded–NBC’s ratings were seldom spectacular under Weaver; CBS tended to rule the roost then, as today. In fact NBC’s greatest success in the post-Weaver years was the Brandon Tartikoff era, when the former ABC program exec wedded the network’s typical ambition and thirst for innovation with a smart quest for personable actors and entertaining concepts.

With Zucker now on the way out and Jeff Gaspin installed as board chairman, NBC appears to be trying to return to the Tartikoff approach, and the new series Undercovers (Wednesdays, 8 p.m. EDT) is a good example of the changes at the network.

It’s another action-adventure series in the mid-1960s style (like Fox’s Human Target and Fringe and much of the USA Network’s original programming). Created by J. J. Abrams, creator of Alias, Lost, Fringe, and the Star Trek reboot movie, Undercovers is not particularly original, but that may actually be a good sign. Following the pattern established by Fox and the USA Network (and taking a cue from NBC’s glory days under Tartikoff) is probably more sensible than continuing down the same unsuccessful path NBC has trodden in the past decade.

The show is also an unacknowledged remake of the mid-1960s NBC comedy-drama espionage series I Spy, which starred Bill Cosby and Robert Culp as secret agents for the Pentagon who travel the world as a tennis bum (Culp) and his manager (Cosby) and encounter adventure in exotic locales. This nod to the past, like other such formula elements in the series, is actually a good thing: Abrams and his team are smart enough to learn from the past and use what works, and then put their own original spin on it.

Like I Spy or a Fox or USAN show, the pilot episode of Undercovers opens with action scene; this one is set in and on the roof of a fancy high-rise hotel. It’s pretty much by-the-numbers stuff, to be sure, but it’s highlighted by a distinctive and suspense-inducing music score, a sign that Abrams and his crew are working hard to make a high-quality show.

Also interesting is the producer-creator’s decision to use a relatively unknown but talented and personable pair of performers as his leads–another smart return to the Tartikoff era and the Fox-USAN approach. Protagonists Steven and Samantha Bloom (Boris Kodjoe and Gugu Mbatha-Raw) are a married couple of former CIA agents working as high-class caterers who are temporarily reinstated into the agency when their skills and knowledge are needed in order to track down a former assaociate, still in the agency, who has disappeared under suspicious circumstances.

The pair are still fairly young and attractive and are well-mannered and apparently rather well-to-do–another of the countless screen couples based on the charming Nick and Nora Charles of the Thin Man mystery film series of the 1930s and ’40s. The Blooms take on the job for patriotic reasons, to help an old friend, and to bring some spice back into their lives.

The villain, per formula, is an arms dealer and all-around bad guy named Alexander Slotsky (a Russian, as his name suggests; it will be interesting to see how long it takes Abrams et al. to introduce a Serbian villain), and the couple’s quest leads them to Madrid, Paris, and Moscow, all in the course of just a few days.

The pilot episode hits all the formula marks for this sort of series: deceptions and impersonations, unexpected setbacks, chase scenes, fisftfights, lively banter, “sexpionage,” glamorous settings, murky lighting, plenty of computer searches, the gruff boss, sinister wealthy people, hidden agendas among the agents’ superiors, crime bosses wantonly killing underlings for minor failures, and so on.

As noted, this is all true to formula, but there’s a reason formulas happen: they work. And they work because the represent good things that work together to convey positive values. In Undercovers, the lead characters are on the good side, and their general demeanir of good cheer during their adventures demonstrates laudable character traits such as courage, perspective, optimism, loyalty, and their sincere love for each other.

The last-named sentiment is expressed very effectively in a brief scene involving a difficult moral choice on the couple’s part before the climactic action scenes. It’s also conveyed in some comical moments between the two, as they quickly express their fondness for each other and then rush off on some urgent task.

Any married couple with busy lives can appreciate those moments in this show.

In the course of the adventure, the relationship between the two lead characters undergoes some mild strains, but of course they overcome them. That’s necessary if the show is to continue. Also in accord with modern TV conventions, there is an underlying plot line which is alluded to but not explained: the Real Reason that the CIA has brought this couple back into action. One hopes that no wormholes will be involved.

Whether audiences will take to this couple and their amusing adventures over the long haul remains to be determined, but it’s clear that Abrams and his team have done their due diligence, bringing a creative flair to the formula. The placement of appealing people in spectacularly dangerous situations has long been a route to success in American popular fictions and their imitators around the world. Who knew that the creator of Lost would turn out to be a closet classicist?

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