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Review: Despite great performances, ‘Undercover’ is too complicated by half

Sophie Okonedo and Adrian Lester star in "Undercover" on BBC America.
Sophie Okonedo and Adrian Lester star in “Undercover” on BBC America.
(BBC America)

“Undercover,” a miniseries premiering Wednesday on BBC America, is not what it appears to be at first. Or second. Or third.

The tangled drama from Peter Moffat, a former barrister who wrote the series “Criminal Justice” that was adapted into HBO’s summer hit “The Night Of,” stars the excellent Sophie Okonedo as Maya Cobbina, a passionate British defense lawyer married to Nick (Adrian Lester), a handsome writer and devoted father to their three teenage children.

The story begins in Louisiana, where Sophie races to meet with her client, Rudy Jones (Dennis Haysbert, playing against type), a wrongfully convicted death row inmate.

What initially seems like it’s going to be an earnest critique of the death penalty – Rudy survives a grotesquely botched lethal injection, leaving his fate in legal limbo – quickly morphs into something unexpected. Back in London, Sophie is approached about becoming the nation’s first black director of public prosecutions.

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The high-profile new job means heightened scrutiny for Maya and her family, and what should be a cause for celebration very nearly leads to disaster. It turns out that, unbeknown to Maya, mild-mannered Nick, who happily plays second fiddle to his ambitious wife, is a former undercover cop living under an assumed identity.

As Nick attempts with increasing desperation to keep Maya from discovering the truth, the series cuts back and forth between the present day and 1996 to tell the story of their meeting. Maya, a socially conscious young lawyer, was involved with an anti-racist activist group that Nick was assigned to infiltrate. Somewhere along the way, they fell in love.

“Undercover” aired earlier this year on the BBC, where it was lauded as a rare British drama featuring black leads. Particularly for American audiences accustomed to starchy period pieces or moody murder mysteries from across the pond, this glimpse of an upwardly mobile black British family is a welcome change of pace (as well as a useful reminder that racial strife is hardly limited to our own shores).

Nick and Maya’s marriage is the most intriguing, well-executed aspect of “Undercover,” and the performances by Lester and Okonedo are more than enough to make the series, despite its flaws, worth watching.

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Lester infuses a character who is inscrutable by design with generosity and quiet strength. It’s not hard to imagine how Maya might have fallen for Nick and overlooked the rather glaring holes in his back story (he claims to have had crack-addicted parents), particularly given her affinity for the underprivileged and persecuted.

Okonedo is an actress who radiates warmth and decency, from “Hotel Rwanda” to her recent Broadway turn as Elizabeth Proctor in “The Crucible.” In her capable hands, Maya’s impassioned idealism is infectious, rather than preachy or tedious, even when she’s grandstanding in court or saying eye-roll-worthy things like “Guilt corrodes. Conscience civilizes.”

The story unfolds in a pleasantly unexpected, deliberative way over the first few episodes. Moffat focuses on themes of race, policing and failed justice, and for a while the timely subject matter and stellar cast are enough to sustain interest in the increasingly gnarled plot.

Eventually, though, the subplots begin to pile up like neglected laundry. In between an epilepsy diagnosis and the pursuit of new leads in the killing of a black activist while in police custody 20 years ago, Maya also jets back and forth to Louisiana to pursue Rudy’s legal appeals.

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Eventually, the viewer becomes disoriented inside a labyrinth of flashbacks, coverups, loose threads and plausibility gaps. “Undercover” starts to feel like several distinct series cobbled together under a single, less-than-entirely coherent story line. The show starts out as a promising genre hybrid — the Spouse With A Secret meets the Wrongfully Convicted Man — but keeps adding on without bothering to adequately tie the various strands together.

The Rudy subplot is particularly untethered from what ought to be the focal point of the drama: Nick and Maya’s increasingly imperiled marriage. The scenes set in Louisiana are short on subtlety and long on stereotypes — think Bible-beating lawyers with drawls as thick as gumbo — and the courtroom exchanges feel like something plucked from an Oscar-baiting movie; how a British lawyer is practicing in the South and arguing before the Supreme Court is never explained.

By the time I reached the last five minutes of the final episode, I thought, “How on Earth are they going to wrap all of this up?” (Spoiler alert: They don’t, really.)

Like both “Criminal Justice” and “The Night Of,” “Undercover” is concerned with the collateral damage wrought by the legal system, with its corrosive effect on lawyers, judges, defendants and, in this case, undercover cops.

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Unfortunately, these worthy and relevant themes get lost in the overgrown narrative weeds.

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‘Undercover’

Where: BBC America

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When: 8, 9 and 10 p.m. Wednesday

Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)

Follow me @MeredithBlake


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