Anybody else remember watching the “Alias” pilot when it originally aired? I was a huge fan of J.J. Abrams’ “Felicity,” and I tuned in out of loyalty to that show (and Jennifer Garner’s brief arc on it). I assumed it would be a silly “Felicity Becomes a Spy,” show, and I had every intention of flipping to the next station on the dial at the first commercial break. But, to my surprise, Abrams pulled me in and knocked me on my ass in the first 20 minutes (the bathtub!), and I didn’t end up missing a second of that show for four seasons (we won’t speak of the latter seasons).
Abrams knows how to make a pilot. It’s what earns him his money, after all. You write a pilot, and do a little consulting for a few episodes, and you can ditch the show and collect royalties for the rest of your life. The pilot episodes for “Felicity,” “Lost,” and “Fringe,” all sucked me in, and it was — in part — the strength of those pilots that got many of us through the dead spells in each of those shows.
Unfortunately, “Undercovers,” breaks Abrams’ successful streak with pilot episodes. It’s weak sauce. It’s vanilla. It’s a bland, cardboard cut-out of every unsuccessful Mr. and Mrs. Smith variation in movie and television history. There’s not an ounce of heaviness underlying the pilot: It’s just bad actors saying stupid things while grinning like goddamn dolts. It makes no sense to me that JJ Abrams — who has had plenty of experience in the spy game (“Alias,” Mission Impossible III) and enough smarts to put a new spin on old conventions (Star Trek) — could come up with this well-sheened knock off. Are we sure that Abrams directed it? Did he actually co-write the pilot? Because, surely, J.J. Abrams can do better than jamming an episode full of one-liners stolen from Get A Room & 1001 Other Witless Witticisms . Where’s Greg Grunberg, for God’s sake? This isn’t a JJ Abrams show? It’s the work of McG’s slow-bus Twitter-addled cousin. It’s not so much terrible as it’s … lazy. “Undercovers” doesn’t seem to aspire to anything other than a lightweight spy-flick escapism, and even at that, it fails miserably.
The Blooms — Steven (Boris Kodjoe) and Samantha (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) — are former CIA agents turned caterers. They’re re-activated when a CIA bureaucrat, Carlton Shaw (Gerald McRaney), enrolls them to assist in the search for a missing agent, one with whom both Steven and Samantha have a relationship. They’re reluctant to give up their catering careers, but they’re typically convinced by a humorless speech about patriotism and serving their country.
The mission takes them to Madrid, Paris, and Russia, and involves almost all the cliches you’d associate with spy shows, right down to the geeky (and painfully sycophantic) tech guy (Ben Schwartz) and the skeevy source. Naturally, they locate the missing agent — who looks to be a major character int eh show — and save him from the bad guys, all the while making painfully banal wisecracks you’re more accustomed to hearing in mult-camera CBS sitcoms.
But the leads are pretty — Gugu Mbatha-Raw is so unbelievably attractive that I’d be willing to learn how to pronounce her name if she she didn’t have all the acting talent of a extra in “One Life to Live.” Boris Kodjoe is a good-looking guy, too, but people who groom their beards as impeccably as he does make me uncomfortable. But that’s really all this show has going for it: A supremely attractive cast. If it were otherwise a little more borderline, I might give the show another shot, but it seems all but unsalvageable. It’s a laugh-track spy show without a laugh track. It’s too empty, too poorly acted, too badly written to believe that, once Abrams hands it off to one of his minions, it could possibly get any better.