The white man's dog
By all accounts, UC: Undercover started out like most tv series. Creators Shane Salerno and Don Winslow hopped on a thematic bandwagon (spies and action scenes), then assembled all kinds of respectable talent (movie stars like Jon Seda, William Forsythe, and Vera Farmiga, directors like Thomas Carter and Tony Bill, and the big-name production company Danny DeVito’s Jersey Films as a production company), and pitched it to a network looking to compete with the cool stuff going on over at cable (NBC). Salerno (co-writer of Shaft and Armageddon and Winslow (Fortunate Son) came up with potentially complicated characters and hepped up secret-mission plots, complete with undercover doohickeys and disguises like the ones that made Mission Impossible such a pleasant diversion, and produced a pilot.
And then something happened. Details are understandably sketchy, but apparently that pilot generated some discussion amongst the executives and the makers, and… decisions were made. The primary on being that Grant Show, who played John Keller, head of the Justice Department undercover unit, was out Whether Show or someone else made this decision, the result was that, by the end of episode 2—just after initiating an intimate relationship with one of his team members, the alternately passionate and prickly Alex Cross (Vera Farmiga)—John was dead, never coming back.
This turn of events suddenly made UC: Undercover quite not like most current tv series. Gossip circulated. Network tv is most definitely and apparently happily formulaic, and you’d think that the folks putting on UC could have found a way to stick to the playbook. They must have had enough time to just begin the series again, shoot another pilot, just dispense with Show’s character altogether, you know, skip the weirdness.
Then again, that weirdness has been one of the best things to happen on UC thus far. John will not be missed, as he was the most standard stone-cold-action-guyish of the protagonists (and I’m not even mad at Show for playing The Biker on
Melrose Place), with little to do in his two episodes except look stoic. Granted, his team was—and remains—quite stock, borrowing from the MI architecture: Jake Shaw (Jon Seda) is the hothead muscle, Cody (Jarrad Paul) the techie, Alex the gifted, slightly freaky chameleon, and Monica (Bruklin Harris) the psychological profiler who tells you everything about a subject that you can figure out for yourself, a feeble role that’s especially disappointing for the magnetic, should-be-breaking-out-by-now Harris (see her also in Jim McKay’s movie, Girlstown).
About a minute after John is shot down like a dog at the end of the second episode, the team’s new leader, Frank Donovan (Israeli-born Oded Fehr), makes his appearance. Fehr’s casting certainly augments the show’s heterosexual-girl appeal, as these are the powers behind legions of websites dedicated to him, mostly featuring stills from his appearances as the romantic Egyptian tribal leader Ardeth Bay in the Mummy movies. (There’s something going on here too, in Fehr playing a character named Donovan; while UC surely means to exploit his sexy popularity, it can’t quite imagine a network series star who isn’t, what? Irish?).
Frank is already more interesting (read: troubled) than John, even if he is a fairly regular heroic-type-with-a-past, angry and solitary. He’s a fine and mostly merciless cop (when dealing with crooks, he spits nasty tidbits like, “If you don’t give me what I want, I’m going to destroy your life”), but he’s also visibly messy, more intriguing than got-it-all-together types like CSI‘s William Petersen or super-sleuths like Vincent D’Onofrio on Law & Order: Criminal Intent. What makes Frank particularly attractive here is that he’s so obviously unhappy with being a team leader, so that he can’t seem to help offending folks every time he turns around.
Frank’s orneriness parallels that of UC‘s flamboyant villains, who get almost as much screen time as the supposed heroes. These include the “criminal mastermind” Sonny Walker (the always excellent William Forsythe, who here stops just short of cartoonish malevolence, as if combining his experience playing The Untouchables‘s Al Capone on tv with some serious tv Batman-watching as a kid); Carlos Cortez (Steven Bauer, who played a similar part in Traffic), a crime boss just released from prison, into the care of his fabulous moll Carly (model and Schwarzenegger movie survivor Angie Everhart); and the bizarrely cool Quito Real, who looks and acts like he escaped from a Tarantino movie. No doubt this has to do with the fact that he’s played by Ving Rhames (who famously got Medieval on someone’s ass in Pulp Fiction), but it’s also because he seems to be living in a world quite distinct from the one where everyone else on the show lives.
Quito first appeared in an episode entitled “Once Upon a Time in the Hood” (airing 21 October), and revealed immediately that he is no ordinary tv scumbag. In fact, he has a surprisingly involved socio-psychological history, which he spills to Jake, who is unconvincingly undercover as a brandy-new gang member whom Quito inexplicably takes under his wing, as bodyguard and confidant. During this episode, we learn a few important details about Quito, like, for instance, his favorite drinks are Shirley Temples and chocolate milk, and his girlfriend Keisha has a mind of her own: when, under duress, he gets short with her, she scolds, “I am not one of your goons. We do not speak to each other in a disrespectful manner.” Quito backs down promptly, apologizing, “I do respect you, my beautiful African queen.”
This exchange suggests that Quito has some self-understanding and even some unusual humility (though the episode doesnt explore the relationship much beyond this scene). Too bad that it takes place in front of Jake, who has just this minute busted into Quito’s home. Jake is pretending to be so desperate to get into Quito’s operation that he has sneaked into Quito’s house and held a gun to his head to prove he is a more efficient security expert than the ones he had working for him. That this moment leads more or less directly to the other security guy’s murder is not a little upsetting for the obviously unorthodox but extremely righteous Jake.
The episode focuses on the developing relationships between Frank and his team (mostly Jake, in this case) and Jake and Quito, though the latter relationship is more involving, except, perhaps, when Frank stages a drive-by to compel Jake’s serious display of body-guarding Quito, without mentioning to Jake that he’s going to do so. As an example of Frank’s methods, this stunt hardly inspires confidence among the skeptical team members, but it does show that he is at least as ruthless as the bad guys he battles. “You needed to be close to Quito and now you are,” he calmly explains to the seething Jake, “You never listen to anybody and you don’t follow orders. Consider this a taste of what it’s like working with you.”
Actually, Jake and Frank both look pretty thorny, as far as camaraderie goes. And up to this point, the girls are stuck doing the girly stuff: Monica doing the Counselor Cleavage empathy routine and Alex, noticeably tough chick that she is, mostly stuck reacting to the men around her. But while the UC guys are all competing for top-dogness, Quito has particular ambitions. He’s not just any homeboy looking to get over and be done with it in one tv series episode. No, this fellow has a load of backstory, including junkie parents and a sad childhood on the streets. “Who knows what I would have been,” he asks, “If I grew up in different circumstances?” This is exactly the right question to ask, even if the answers can’t be faced on a network tv series. Instead, Quito is consigned to offering snippets of wisdom, explaining to whomever will listen, including his new best friend Jake, that he wants to be more than “a three-block dope dealer.”
In UC, such ambition must be the villain’s downfall: guys like Quito have to know their limits and viewers have to know that they know their limits. At the same time, for about a minute, the show acknowledges the legitimacy of his ambition, if not his violent means to achieve it. Moreover, such means are questionable even when used to the “good”: Frank’s similar tactics (that trumped up driveby, for one instance, or playing high-stakes head-games with a kidnapper in another episode), still look dicey, even if he’s playing for the “right” team (I imagine that, if we ever do get backstory on Frank, it will be as screwed up as his adversary’s).
Quito understands the legal/penal scheme in ways that Jake just doesn’t or can’t (at least not that we’ve witnessed yet). Where Jake ostensibly perceives a clean division between right and wrong (except when it suits his purposes, like getting inside the gang), Quito sees perpetually mushy grays. He sees his own role as philanthropist: “I produce miracles,” he says, “I build playgrounds, I build hospitals, I send kids to college.” And his “people” love Quito for his good works. Still, he’s also been very bad, and so he’s busted, with a big display of guns and undercover teamwork, and the revelation of Jake’s “true” identity.
Quito calls him a “chump, bitch, traitor,” and perhaps most tragically, “the white man’s dog.” (Ouch.) But the show retreats from this powerful moment, wherein Quito and Jake acknowledge their equally strained relations to the “justice” system, and cuts to another scene, outside. Here Jake spots a kid he befriended while posing as a gangster. When the kid sees Quito being led away, he rejects Jake, who in turn imagines him turning into the Next Quito. This is supposed to be a bad thing, but UC, for all its moral line-toeing, never completely loses sight of Quito’s appeal or insights.