TV Review: 'Chaos'

"Chaos," which premieres Friday on CBS, is a new spymedy — I am registering that word with the Department of Neologisms, but you may use it for a small consideration — from Tom Spezialy. His name was formerly attached, as an executive producer and sometime writer, to "Reaper," which I take as a recommendation, and "Desperate Housewives," not so much. When I hear the word "chaos" in the context of espionage, I of course think of the evil KAOS from "Get Smart," but here they are the good guys, CHAOS standing for Clandestine Administration and Oversight Services, a supposed department of the CIA. They have seemingly imagined an "H" somewhere in the word "Clandestine" or perhaps sitting silently before "Administration" — but that is just that sort of creative thinking that makes good spies, I guess.

The ironic tone is set at the top, with an introductory mention of "godless communism" placed against a clip of Fidel Castro throwing a baseball, part of a montage of old footage that also includes a nuclear explosion and a man harmlessly being run over by a steamroller. Speaking is new recruit Rick Martinez (Freddy Rodriguez, who was Giovanni the Sandwich Guy on "Ugly Betty"), who promises to tell us "how I learned to defend our country by defying intelligence."

Rick arrives at Langley for the first day of his dream job, only to learn that his position has been de-funded. Instead, he's asked to snoop intra-office on a trio of overly independent agents who constitute the ODS (for Office of Disruptive Services); I don't know if those letters spoken aloud are supposed to sound like "odious," but they sort of do. These new friends, enemies at first, are played by Eric Close, the alpha dog (George Clooney if this were a movie); James Murray, a Scotsman thrown out of both the British secret service and Great Britain "for a wee bit of reckless boyish mischief"; and Tim Blake Nelson, described as "a human weapon," almost as if to make up for him not being as tall or handsome as the others. (Rodriguez is small and handsome, in the Michael J. Fox mode.)

They are, as Rick will come to see, "not bad for the sake of being bad" but "bad for the sake of doing good." Where the foreign agents of popular fiction typically demonstrate their love of country by submission to the state, the American hero displays his through insubordination: Patriotism is expressed as a mistrust of authority, or at least a readiness to ignore it, from one's immediate superior to the president. This explains much, I think, and not just about this television show.

The pilot episode, efficiently directed by Brett Ratner (of the "Rush Hour" movies), gives our heroes Sudanese rebels and scorpions to contend with. But the real enemy is middle management, the cramped spirits who hold back the bolder. (Kurtwood Smith, no cuddlier here than as Topher Grace's father on "That '70s Show," is the resident killjoy.) If you have experience with television, you will have already recognized "Chaos" as "McHale's Navy" with more action and a thin veneer of seriousness. That is not a criticism.

As is the case with pilots, the seams tend to show — the bountiful expository dialogue makes no effort to veil its purpose, and the production is a tad too insistent that we find these scamps charming. But they are fairly charming at that, and though the spy stuff is all unconvincing hokum, the company is easy to bear.

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