September 22nd, 2010
In the future, I think J.J. Abrams should operate under a pseudonym (or go undercover, if you prefer the pun).
If it were not for his presence, I think I’d be able to write a review saying that Undercovers (debuting tonight at 8/7c on NBC) is a show with a decent premise, a stylish pilot, and a strong cast; instead, all I want to do is talk about how none of what makes – or perhaps made – Abrams a distinctive voice in television seems to be present. The pilot has no sense of surprise and little sense of mystery, and yet because we associate these things with Abrams it feels like a disappointment even when, objectively speaking, this is an average pilot for an average premise, and Abrams was only a co-creator and co-writer (with Josh Reims).
And yet, we desire – and perhaps even demand – something beyond average, which is why Undercovers fails to resonate beyond its attractiveness.
Abrams’ contribution to this pilot seems to be primarily stylistic: there’s a number of impressive sequences in foreign locales, and the performances are uniformly pretty solid. The problem is that the pilot has no sense of momentum or rhythm: while the premise of the series is that two former spies who retired after falling in love re-enter the field, there is no sense that the pace of their lives, or the series, changes when they jump back into the game. They’re not out of shape, or out of practice, or even out of sorts: instead, it’s completely natural for them to jump back into the game, allowing the pilot to feature airplane jumps and sexpionage but halting any sort of legitimate conflict.
It draws conflict, instead, from the idea that their relationship won’t be able to handle the spy world: since they were never spies on the same mission in the past, they spend the episode learning about their pasts and dealing with small tidbits of information that never actually makes them question their relationship. Without spoiling anything, the couple remains married at the conclusion of the episode, and the argument is that spying together is what rekindles their relationship. This would be fine if either character were defined outside of their relationship, but a sister character is underdeveloped and their workplace is nothing but a fancy-looking kitchen set. If the central tension of the series, at least as far as the pilot is concerned, is resolved in the pilot, where precisely do they go from here?
It’s there where we lean on Abrams’ pedigree, and try to imagine some sort of conspiracy (vaguely hinted at in the pilot) entering into this world; it’s also here where we feel to find such an out, as nothing in this pilot suggests that this series will be half as dynamic as Alias. I hate to make the comparison, but Abrams’ presence looms heavily over the show: the obsessive sidekick becomes Marshall, Gerald McRaney’s character might as well be played by Victor Garber, and outside of interesting (and largely unmentioned) questions of race there is little which separates these characters from Sydney and Vaughan as far as spy-related relationships go. I think we’d more or less think in those terms if Abrams’ name wasn’t attached, but I think we’d consider it intelligent (if shameless) pilfering rather than lazy self-plagiarism.
Perhaps, though, we would still have issues even if Abrams’ name wasn’t attached: after all, the show also evokes other series – including NBC’s own Chuck, especially in its opening scene which is almost a mirror of Chuck’s pilot – in a way which raises questions about why this show isn’t more engaging. And because the episode itself doesn’t really pose any questions within its narrative, all we have to discuss is our external questions regarding the show’s production. We want to wonder whether their relationship can last, or whether their lives could be in danger, but instead the pilot gives us concerns over kosher beef and an espionage plot without any real stakes.
And so we turn to questions of why the pilot isn’t better, whether J.J. Abrams has lost the magic, and whether NBC bothered to watch the show before picking it up beyond seeing Abrams’ name in the credits. These questions aren’t entirely fair, to be honest: Boris Kodjoe and Gugu Mbatha-Raw have plenty of chemistry and are both compelling performers, which means that the show has a pretty solid foundation on which to build in the future. However, with Abrams’ name attached, we want something more than solid: we want excitement and mystery, not a basic premise that could theoretically spawn a decent television series.
And so, instead of offering light praise and a prediction that casual audiences will enjoy an attractive, decent new spy series, one can’t help but lament what could have been.
- I won’t spoil it, but as ridiculous as parts of the final action sequence are there is a really bloody cool move that Mbatha-Raw gets to pull off which was the one moment of legitimate excitement I had with the pilot.
- I note that Gerald McRaney’s character is fairly generically drawn above, but McRaney is intelligently cast in the role – he does dry humour very effectively, and can switch to menacing when it is required.
- While I am somewhat critical of Abrams, the pilot is pretty beautiful – the wide shots in the opening sequence are particularly effective.
- I am always excited to see Michael Giacchino’s name pop up on the screen, especially in relation to J.J. Abrams projects, and his music is definitely one of the highlights of the pilot. However, just as his Fringe score tended to rip off his Lost score, there is a lot of Ratatouille and The Incredibles here. Just listen.