Television review: ‘Undercovers’


J.J. Abrams and Josh Reims’ “Undercovers,” which premieres Wednesday, promises to be a happy addition to the struggling phoenix that is the NBC lineup, and not just because its leads are both black. Though there’s nothing wrong with tuning in because of that.

We give points around here for trying something new, and in the Year of Our Lord 2010, there are just too many white folks on American TV, and way too many of them are playing lawyers, cops and parents. The leads of “Undercovers” are spies, and while spies are not unheard of these days, they’re also married. Who can resist an action-packed, banter-heavy spy show that also explores modern marriage? “Undercovers” is all that and Paris too.

Steven ( Boris Kodjoe) and Samantha (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) Bloom are CIA operatives turned caterers (which raises the question: Which job requires more muscle and tactical savvy?). One fine day, as they struggle to keep all their pre-drizzled plates in the air — their business is in the red, their marriage is not what it once was — who should come knocking but the always-welcome Gerald McRaney. Well, actually it’s a guy called Carlton Shaw, but he’s played by McRaney, which, given his signature military bearing and small mustache, can mean only one thing: Their country needs them again.

In fact, their friend and Samantha’s former partner, Leo Nash (Carter MacIntyre), has gone missing. Having vowed to put their relationship above their training, the Blooms refuse, forcing Shaw to deliver a surprisingly substantial speech about the nature of responsibility. Steven and Sam are not unmoved, and next thing we know, they’re Mr. and Mrs. Smith, only nicer — happy to bring down international kingpins, but they’re not, you know, paid assassins. This isn’t Showtime.

Off they go, from Madrid to Paris to Moscow, with the requisite Pentagon Platinum card (“Whatever you need,” Shaw tells them), a wardrobe that runs from high fashion to couture, a sidekick (“Parks and Recreation’s” Ben Schwartz) with a spy-crush on Steven, and the feisty banter of an old married couple.

Could that banter be a little testier? Could the marriage be a little rockier? Yes and yes. The writers seem so concerned with ensuring that their characters are preternaturally decent and likable that they go for sunny skies when there should be storm clouds. In the pilot, the main source of tension — Steven believes that Leo has turned and Samantha does not — never quite gets off the ground or under either character’s skin, which is a shame. What made “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” so delicious was that love never meant having to say, “That’s OK, honey, don’t worry about it.”

But Kodjoe and Mbatha-Raw are so energetic and appealing that it’s hard to take your eyes off them long enough to worry about such matters, and they both seem up to just about anything. An old pro like McRaney can keep the series grounded with one hand tied behind his back, and MacIntyre’s Nash provides a grin-flashing foil to Kodjoe’s more serious Steven. So it’s the chemistry between the two leads that will make or break “Undercovers.”

As shows as diverse as “Moonlighting” and “Dr. Who” have proved, adventure is always more fun when there’s romantic frisson in the background. The prospect of that occurring with a married couple is a fine, fresh twist, as is the vision of them attempting to run their catering business while infiltrating military installations and high-profile events. “This reception cost a fortune,” Samantha says after they’ve parachuted into a diplomatic wedding.

Kodjoe and Mbatha-Raw seem more than capable of performing miracles in the wide-open space between regular life and spy games, so it’s up to the writers to give them a nice, tight high-wire to walk.