Test Pilot is a semiregular feature sharing my first impressions of the pilots for next fall’s shows. These aren’t reviews, since these pilots can be rewritten, recast and retooled before airing, and the shows that eventually get on the air can prove much better or worse. But, premature opinions are why God invented the Internet, so let’s get on with…
The Show: Undercovers, NBC
The Premise: In J.J. Abrams’ new spy series (together with Josh Reims), Steven and Samantha Bloom (Boris Kudjoe and Gugu Mbatha-Raw) used to be CIA agents, five years ago; now they’re married and run a catering business. When an old associate goes missing, the CIA asks them for help, as only they can find the missing agent because—well, if they didn’t get back in the spy business, we wouldn’t have a show, would we? Steven and Samantha initially resist, but each come to see this as a way of getting out of their rut, and in the process, they come to learn more about each other both as kickass agents and as spouses.
First Impressions: Remember the first five minutes of all those episodes of Abrams’ Alias, where Sydney Bristow and Dixon would have to infiltrate a nightclub on Marrakesh or a Eurotrash dinner party in Stockholm and Sydney would sneak into a vault wearing a band-aid miniskirt and a purple wig while Dixon talked to Marshall on a radio hookup? Did you ever think, “Alias would be so much better if the show was entirely about these first five minutes, plus maybe if Sydney and Dixon were married, minus SD-6 and The Alliance and pretty much any serial element of the story?” If you did (and that’s a reasonable position–not everyone geeked out on Rimbaldi artifacts and Evil Francie like I did), this could be the show for you. Light in tone and (seemingly) mostly self-contained in episode structure, this feels like a more escapist, less ambitious Abrams show than Lost, Fringe or even Alias. And while I might prefer his more ambitious shows, I’m glad to judge Undercovers on its own terms. Kudjoe and Mbatha-Raw have charm and chemistry and clearly fit the “sexy, fun couple” image that the show is aiming for. But the tone of the pilot didn’t always feel consistent: at times it seemed to aim at being an entirely feel-good romp, at others it seemed to be aiming at an emotional undercurrent, using the spy drama as a way of exploring the Blooms’ marriage. I would hope for the latter, as I think Abrams does better (as in Alias) when he couples action with emotional stakes; but he could also choose to go all in with Undercovers as a Hart-to-Hart throwback.
Do I Want to Watch Another Episode? I get the feeling that a perfectly executed Undercovers would probably not be a show I’d feel compelled to watch every week (I’m the kind of guy who wants serial stories and Rambaldi artifacts), but I’ll see where the show’s tone settles.