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TV Tonight: Undercovers

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The running theme of this fall season has been that the broadcast networks have been focusing on simple, easy-to-follow shows, ceding more involved, serial shows to cable. (The couple of exceptions have had mixed results so far: The Event premiered well, Lone Star became a falling star.) That means a lot of new shows this season that fall into the Fine If You Like That Kind of Thing category—competent shows that are neither very horrible or very exceptional, and that I probably won’t review unless they really take off later (e.g., Chase, The Defenders, The Whole Truth).

One of those shows I do want to note is NBC’s Undercovers, from J. J. Abrams. Because if broadcast TV’s biggest evangelist for serial shows (Lost, Alias, sort-of Fringe) is curtailing his scope to get on the air, you know something’s going on.

Abrams, after all, is not just a guy who makes complicated serial shows. I’ve talked to him about the subject in the past, and he’s always been pretty adamant that he prefers that kind of TV. Yes, he’s also cited anthologies like The Twilight Zone as an inspiration, but his philosophy is—or was—that a running storyline is what really gets you involved in a series and takes greatest advantage of the ways in which TV is different from movies.

Which is why his sleek new spy series, Undercovers, is such an odd thing to see on the air. Yes, it has several Abrams signatures. There’s witty dialogue. There’s grounding in a relationship story. There’s action leavened with comic relief. And the central spy couple runs a catering business, which allows for the kind of Pottery Barn-esque window dressing that Abrams shows since Felicity have been partial to.

But in the show’s basic premise and structure, Undercovers is like a J.J. Abrams show with the J.J. Abrams taken out of it.

To be more specific, it’s Alias for people who believe that the best parts of Alias were the first ten minutes of any given episode, and who could have done without the rest: the Rimbaldi artifacts, the dark family history with Sydney’s parents, the crosses and double-crosses of the CIA, SD-6 and so on, and any hint of a running story that you had to follow from week to week. (Which is fine: Those sorts of things were what made Alias great for me, but I’ll be the first to admit that Alias got insane with the baroque plots after a couple of seasons.)

The premise, then: Steven and Samantha Bloom (Boris Kodjoe and Gugu Mbatha-Raw) are impossibly attractive former agents who’ve gone civilian and gone into the food business. They’re happy, they love each other, but deep down each feels that life planning menus for weddings lacks a certain, well, spice. So when a former colleague gets in trouble and the agency calls them (I could explain why it must be them, but basically it’s because otherwise there would be no show), each is secretly glad. They end up working together—something they never actually did as agents—and learning more than they expected about who their spouses are, and who they used to be.

It’s a fetching enough prospect and Kodjoe and Mbatha-Raw do a fine job bringing the Blooms alive as a bourgeois couple sharing the joy of feeling really alive again. I also suspect that they could do a fine job with even more, but judging by the pilot (all I have to go on), I don’t expect Undercovers ever to challenge them that way. Their mission goes down, they hook up with a comically fawning techno-geek, slinky outfits are worn. It’s all good fun, but the tone is so light—at one point the Blooms, escaping a dangerous spot, share giant grins as if they’re on a really awesome Spy Honeymoon Vacation—that though there’s excitement, there don’t really seem to be stakes.

All of which is fine and well-executed—all together now—If You Like That Sort of Thing. The Blooms are very likeable, and while they keep their catering company as a cover, you’re glad for them that they no longer have to spend their lives doing safe work that pays the bills, that they get to take a risk and challenge themselves as they truly want to in their hearts. I hope that, on some future show, J.J. Abrams gets to do that again too.