By this point, it’s been a good long while since ‘Alias’ burst onto the primetime programming schedule with two seasons of ass-kicking spy fantasy bliss, followed by its slow deflation over several nowhere-nearly-as-good seasons. In the meantime, a host of imitators have tried to copy the formula. Just this past summer, we had ‘Covert Affairs‘ on USA, which was a pretty shameless ‘Alias’ clone. Right at this very moment, the CW network is running ‘Nikita’, the second attempt to spin-off Luc Besson’s ‘La Femme Nikita‘ to television. Now even ‘Alias’ producer J.J. Abrams is back at it, blatantly repeating himself with ‘Undercovers’ on NBC. Is this a glorious return to his roots, or a pathetic cash-in?
My verdict so far: Meh.
Here’s the set-up: Former super-spies Steven and Samantha Bloom (Boris Kodjoe and Gugu Mbatha-Raw – and yes, these are their real names) have retired from the life of espionage to settle into domestic bliss and run a catering business. Those plans are derailed when cranky CIA handler Carlton Shaw (Gerald McRaney) recruits them back into service for one more mission. It seems that another spy named Leo Nash, who just so happens to be Samantha’s ex-boyfriend, has gone rogue and appears to be trying to sell some sensitive documents to a Russian arms dealer named Alexander Slotsky.
Long story short, Leo is really running an op to lure Slotsky out of hiding to be captured. But Leo gets himself captured instead, and needs rescuing by Steven and Samantha. With the help of goofball ops technician Hoyt (Ben Schwartz, much more appealing here than in ‘Peep World‘) – who has a serious man-crush on Steven – they’ll jet around the world, from fake-Madrid to fake-Paris to fake-Russia (all of which look remarkably like southern California with some landmarks unconvincingly CGI’ed into the background), until Leo’s trail leads them to one of those ubiquitous steam-pipe factories that serve no purpose other than to be the setting for a big shootout.
A big shootout they will have. This one even involves the world’s slowest RPG. (I’m pretty sure that’s not at all intentional. It just looks completely ridiculous.)
In addition to that, the ‘Pilot’ episode has some other moderately decent action, including a pretty good fight scene on the rooftops of fake-Paris, and a car chase through fake-Russia that culminates with another RPG explosion.
‘Pilot’ was co-written and directed by J.J. Abrams, but feels entirely impersonal. Unlike ‘Alias’, he’s clearly not the driving creative force behind this series. That would be creator and producer Josh Reims. Like most of the shows that Abrams has lent his name to post-’Alias’, we can expect little to no involvement on his part going forward.
The first episode is slickly produced, and has a lot of vaguely-witty banter between the leads. But it also feels awfully generic and derivative. Perhaps the biggest problem is that the two stars are not even remotely convincing as spies. They’re both simply too good-looking, to the point of distraction. How effective can you be as an undercover spy when you look like an underwear model?
Surprise surprise, it turns out that Kodjoe actually was an underwear model! He might consider going back to that career, because he’s not terribly good as an actor.
Mbatha-Raw (who had a run on ‘Doctor Who’ a few years ago) is a little more appealing. She gets to try out a couple of different accents – including one scene where she gets to speak in her real British accent. But her character suffers from the “teeny tiny frail stick-figure woman who can allegedly kick the asses of huge muscle-bound men” cliché. (See also: ‘Hawaii Five-0‘.)
So, as I said: Meh. I might give ‘Undercovers’ a couple more episodes to see if it gets any better, but at this point, I’m not expecting it to be a keeper.