UNDERCOVERS Series Premiere Review

     September 22, 2010

With hits like Alias, Fringe and of course Lost under his belt, it appears Bad Robot mastermind J.J. Abrams can do no wrong. But how does the popular filmmaker take a concept that has been driven into the ground with mediocre romantic comedies like Killers and Date Night or already somewhat explored by NBC’s other action comedy spy series Chuck? The answer is very carefully and with moderate success.

Steven and Samantha Bloom (played respectively by Boris Kodjoe and Gugu Mbatha-Raw) are struggling through debt with their catering business until grizzly old Agent Carlton Shaw (Gerald McRaney) reluctantly sits them down for a proposal to help locate missing CIA agent Leo Nash (Carter MacIntyre), who also happens to be one of their good friends. With a marriage that has somewhat lost its spark (though certainly not its true love), the only way to spice thing up under the covers may be to become Undercovers all over again. Find out how The Bloom’s fare on their first mission after the jump.

While both Steven and Samantha are clearly happy in their marriage, it seems to be missing some spice. Though each of them seem reluctant to get back into agency work, the disappearance of Steven’s best man and former colleague is reason enough for him to take a chance. Of course when he arrives at Agent Shaw’s hotel with the stipulation of taking the mission only if his wife doesn’t find out, Samantha is already there waiting for the same reason. And we have our heroes.

Thankfully what follows isn’t the standard over-the-top fare of petty arguing and slapstick scenarios between couples as they attempt to duke it out with the world’s most dangerous thugs. While the element of romantic comedy is certainly there, its as grounded as the action sequences and espionage story itself. While NBC’s Chuck delivers plenty of nonsensical fun in an action spy package, Undercovers is more akin to J.J. Abrams work on Mission Impossible 3 where quick banter, and smooth chemistry between main characters fills the gaps between gritty and realistic action. Though I think it’s interesting to point out that the industrial complex used for the climax of Undercovers bears a striking resemblance to Volkoff Industries headquarters nuclear plant from Monday’s fourth season premiere of Chuck.

Kodjoe and Mbatha-Raw have such amazing chemistry that it feels like the two should be married themselves (and they would have the most beautiful babies I could ever imagine). Their quick back-and-forth dialogue feels genuine and their rhythm is perfect. Even further, Mbatha-Raw shows surprising comedic sensibilities for a show that largely focuses first on the espionage (sometimes “sexpionage”) and second on the comedy. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t enough laughs to be had when The Bloom’s young handler Bill Hoyt (Ben Schwartz) comes into play. Hoyt’s in awe of Steven’s skills and much to the chagrin of Samantha, completely ignorant of her own exploits. However, even Steven himself gets a bellyful of Hoyt’s ass-kissing. Fortunately the playful nature between the three makes for good teamwork and it seems like Hoyt will be back.

The only issue for viewers I can see cropping up is with its two main characters so madly in love, how easy will it be to stretch out the romantic comedy aspects of the show before it becomes tired and repetitive. To reference NBC’s Chuck for the last time, the romantic angle in that series ran successfully for so long because the relationship between Chuck Bartowski and Sarah Walker was always so uncertain and up-in-the-air. Here we have a happy marriage (almost the opposite of Mr. and Mrs. Smith), and while it’s not always easy to keep that up, I can’t see many obstacles getting in the way of The Blooms love. In fact, their romance may only be bolstered by the international locales featured like Paris and Moscow.

What’s most intriguing right now is that the show seems to be more procedural than serial. For now there are no hints at a serial story arc that will run through the entire series, and coming from Abrams that’s certainly surprising and even unexpected. Almost disappointingly, the series doesn’t entirely feel like it comes from J.J. Abrams and lacks some of his trademark creativity (though there are a few lens flares). It’s not necessarily a bad thing since the gun-for-hire nature of TV direction will allow almost any action capable director of stepping into the series without having to live up to the high standards of grand motion picture direction.

THE FINAL WORLD: While the concept is familiar and at times recycled, J.J. Abrams’ Undercovers delivers an espionage thriller with a dash of romantic comedy that certainly entertains. Hopefully an extended story arc will begin to manifest itself to make the stakes higher and the espionage more thrilling, but for now the new series certainly has a lot of potential. Here’s hoping it takes off.

Undercovers airs Wednesdays at 8/7c on NBC. Stay tuned every week for our recaps of each new episode!