J.J. Abrams certainly knows how to open a series with a bang. Both Alias and Lost plunged viewers immediately into vast, labyrinthine worlds driven by smart and resourceful protagonists. While the content is mostly recycled classic television, the Abrams formula shifts traditional storytelling into hyperdrive. This has largely been the key to his success; he doesn’t toss the storytelling baby out with the bathwater in order to appeal to modern audiences. Aristotle would have to catch up, but he would eventually recognize that all six of his elements of drama are still present; they’re just a bit more emphatic and caffeinated than usual.
The premiere episode of Abrams’s stylish and very well produced new series Undercovers is definitely the house blend. The pace is accelerated, the overlapping dialogue is read at speeds unheard of since His Girl Friday, the action is quite large-scale for TV, and the music is loud and brassy. Par for Abrams, the characters are all introduced in swift, broad strokes that economically define them enough to propel the initial hour of adventure.
However, Abrams’s new spy show can’t help but draw comparisons with his old one, Alias, and this puts it at a real disadvantage. No matter what you may have thought of the series by the end, the Alias pilot was one of the best ever made and could easily stand alone as a self-contained piece of dramatic entertainment. It told a complete story that established the premise, motivated the characters, and suggested a panoply of mysteries and enigmas to come. The premiere of Undercovers is a competent start, but nothing more.
If the premise seems a bit familiar that’s because it’s a twist on popular Hollywood movies like Mr. and Mrs. Smith and True Lies, not to mention the ’80s TV series Hart to Hart, which the creators themselves readily admit as influential. Smart and sexy husband-and-wife caterers turn out to be smart and sexy retired international spies and find themselves pulled back into service when an old mutual friend is captured by the enemy. The big twist here is that they’re black, which is sadly still rare for network TV. So rare, in fact, that this very element makes the show appear to be something new and different when it’s not. Not yet, at least.
Luckily, stars Boris Kodjoe and Gugu Mbatha-Raw have more than enough charisma to spare and that’s about 90% of what makes TV tick. There’s even a certain flair to their repartee that makes you wonder if Abrams and co-writer Josh Reims were consciously thinking of Barack and Michelle Obama as models for their adventurous yet domestic spy couple. The characters are gently sarcastic with one another, clearly in love, and exhibit great respect for their unique skills. What’s missing is a stronger supporting cast and the right narrative vehicle for their adventures. Besides the leads, all of the characters are thinly drawn and generic (there’s even the standard nerdy tech guy tossed in for comic relief), and the spy plot is almost as campy as a rerun of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Done with more finesse, the show could still slyly keep its tongue in cheek without sacrificing suspense and danger.