You can count on the hour-long spy drama to deliver a few stock elements. A big-name producer helps to get the project off the ground, and from there, flashy effects, high production values, glamorous spies, and some generic self-awareness (everyone has seen –and rolled their eyes at — James Bond) have become requisite. J.J. Abrams’ new show, Undercovers, has all of these elements and more.
The glamorous spies are Steven and Samantha Bloom (Boris Kodjoe and Gugu Mbatha-Raw), retired from the CIA and now running a catering business and called back to the field to rescue their old friend Leo Nash (Carter MacIntyre). Appealing and affectionate, with one another, they drive nice cars and wear fabulous clothes — and even with a five-year gap in practice, they work deftly with high-tech gadgets. They help make Undercovers a slick and entertaining hour of television. They’re also black actors starring in a high-profile drama on a major network.
At first glance, this seems a progressive, maybe even a daring choice, given the dearth of black protagonists on network shows. But in plot and visual style, Undercovers isn’t so special; there’s nothing in the pilot that makes a first-time viewer say, “Whoa.” In fact, it’s rather like the other spy show on NBC, the one that precedes it on Wednesday nights, Chuck. This means the new show’s fortune depends in part on the attention span of the spy-drama audience.
It also depends on the appeal of the Blooms. An attractive couple and excellent spies, they’re not particularly sympathetic. Their lives are high-gloss and their concerns a bit superficial. They have to maintain a busy catering schedule and manage Samantha’s sister Lizzie’s (Mekia Cox) ineptitude, but their small business hijinks are uninspired. Basically, we’ve seen versions of this show before, as it recalls Hart to Hart and Scarecrow and Mrs. King, Alias and, yes, Chuck.
That said, Undercovers does show potential in the premiere episode, airing 22 September. The occasionally lively dynamic between the Blooms and their team members expands the emotional focus from the super-couple to an ensemble. Steven and Samantha have different relationships with Hoyt (Ben Schwartz), their Steven-worshipping field contact. Hoyt provides welcome humor and a perspective outside of Blooms’ own. Hoyt’s fan-boy recollections of Steven’s exploits foreshadow possible future missions and drop hints concerning vengeful former adversaries. Hoyt seems to know more than Samantha about Steven’s past exploits, a disproportion that’s already creating small tensions between them.
But for all its generic interest in intrigue, Undercovers isn’t very intriguing. As the Blooms agree to go back to work for Carter Shaw (Gerald McRaney), it’s plain that his stated rationale for their return isn’t exactly straightforward. If his duplicity is another spy show cliché, so are the Blooms’ manifest distrust and their inevitable investigation of the CIA’s interests. At times witty and always good-looking, Undercovers needs to figure out how to balance its serious, silly, and gimmicky inclinations.