TV Review: UNDERCOVERS, 1.1 - "Pilot"

This is the first TV pilot from J.J Abrams that feels behind the curve, with a concept lacking the ingenuity of previous Abrams-produced ventures (Alias, Lost, Fringe). Undercovers offers no joyous surprises, feeling like something Abrams has tossed off inbetween movie projects as a favour to NBC; content to deliver a tweak to his spy-drama Alias that only has superficial allure. There's just nothing much going on inside. Steven Bloom (Boris Kodjoe) and wife Samantha (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) were the CIA's top agents until they met five years ago, fell in love, and retired to get married and run a catering company together in L.A. The spark has begun to fizzle in their relationship, until CIA liaison Carlton Shaw (Gerald McRaney) requests their help in finding missing agent Leo Nash, a former friend of theirs who disappeared while tracking a Russian arms dealer in Paris. Both can't refuse the chance to relive their former lives, so are reinstated to find Nash, with backup from field agent and Bloom superfan Bill Hoyt (Ben Schwartz). The positive is that both Kodjoe and Mbatha-Raw are well cast and appear to have some chemistry together, while being plausible in the action stakes. Kodjoe has easygoing charm and good-looks, while Mbatha-Raw's diminutive but tough, with a quirky and sexy attitude. You can believe in them as a married couple who used to be spies, although the script does a terrible job of pushing the idea their relationship's lost its spark in retirement. The arc of the Bloom's discovering the spy-game has rejuvenated their marriage just doesn't work, because they just didn't start the episode in the doldrums. Or maybe conventional married life running your own successful business is the doldrums, in the eyes of Hollywood? It's perhaps misleading to say Undercovers has truly bad elements, because everything it's doing has been done before very successfully. And that's the problem: each ingredient is appetizing, but they've been put together to bake a cake we've eaten too many times already. It doesn't have anything to call its own, or any clever twist on its genre or relationships to pull you in. It's Mr & Mrs Smith for the smallscreen, Alias with marriage vows, or Chuck with less laughs. We're so awash with spy shows that Undercovers has essentially joined an overcrowded party and been caught out wearing the same outfit. How embarrassing. Technically, this pilot as strong as you'd expect a mainstream network premiere directed by J.J Abrams (Mission Impossible III, Star Trek) to be, but there's no standout spying sequence, intense action moment, of memorable visual anywhere to be found. Abrams handles the action well enough, but not to any great filmmaking standard. It doesn't help that the storyline is surprisingly thin and tedious, and because Undercovers is intentionally designed to be more standalone than serialized, there's nothing in this opener's plot to draw you back for more. Success or failure is being heaped upon the shoulders of Kodjoe and Mbatha-Raw, because if audience respond to their fantastical married life together then the show might work. It's nice to have two black actors headlining a major TV show of this nature -- but I guess we're still not read for one of the Bloom's to be white, right? Ever notice how black people in US shows rarely marry outside of their race, or if they do it's into another racial group, like Latinos? The only recent example of a film that bucked that trend was Hancock (Will Smith and Charlize Theron -- who's interestingly of South African origin), but I digress. Overall, Undercovers is adequate, well-made, well-cast, but so suffocatingly middle-of-the-road and afraid to take any risks that it'll bore most of its audience. The leads are good, but not good enough to overcome the fact they're the beautiful stars of a TV show that's a lazy mélange.
WRITERS: J.J Abrams & Josh Reims DIRECTOR: J.J Abrams CAST: Boris Kodjoe, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Ben Schwartz, Carter MacIntyre, Mekia Cox, Gerald McRaney, Victor Alfieri, Brad Grunberg, Jessica Parker Kennedy & Zoran Radanovich TRANSMISSION: 22 September 2010 - NBC
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