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TV: Undercovers

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I saw a trailer the other day for a new NBC show, Undercovers, that looked like it might be worth seeing. So on Friday night, I watched the pilot on Hulu, and I watched the second episode just now.

The show turns out to be a lot of fun.

High concept premise: Ex-CIA married couple, now caterers, go back to fieldwork.

More specifically, Steven and Samantha Bloom, who left the CIA five years ago because their separate CIA careers were hurting their relationship, are happy but exhausted with their catering business, when a CIA agent shows up and asks them to go looking for an old friend, an agent who's gone missing.

JJ Abrams co-created and co-produced the show, but so far it doesn't have the complicated twisty backstabby kind of stuff that I loved on Alias; this new show is charming, sweet, and funny, with good actiony bits. (And occasional eye-rollingly goofy technology, but I guess that's par for the course on TV, maybe especially in spy shows.)

And, oh yeah, the husband and wife are both black.

Which is interesting in a variety of ways, many of which are discussed in a roundtable at Racialicious. (The comments are also worth reading, especially one from Jessica Isabel.) Among other things, various posters and commenters note that both leads are mixed-race; both come from Europe; both read as light-skinned black people who are conventionally attractive by white-people standards. (Note: I'm not saying those are bad things, just interesting facets.) See the post for more discussion.

When asked about the casting, co-creator Josh Reims said that he and Abrams wanted to look at various possibilities: “[We said] Let's just see every possible incarnation of person [so we won't end up with] the same people we've seen on TV a million times. . . . Boris and Gugu came in, and we sort of knew immediately, these are them. We didn't go out of our way to say we are hiring two black people to be the leads of our show, but we didn't ignore it either. [. . .] We don't consider we are revolutionizing TV, at the same time we realize it is a big deal.”

The number of actors of color on TV has been, unfortunately, declining. There's an interesting article at Oh No They Didn't about diversity on TV. Among other things, it notes: “When the broadcast networks launch the new TV season this fall, none of their shows will have a majority African-American cast.” And the equal-employment-opportunities director of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists says, about the forthcoming TV season, “What I'm seeing is, with a few exceptions, not only shows that are predominately Caucasian with a smattering of minorities [. . .]; I'm seeing primarily Caucasian shows period.”

So it's nice to see an action show with two black leads; I don't know if that's ever happened before.

A few other thoughts:

Although the supporting cast is also fun (the grumpy old white guy, the puppyish young white guy, the conceited old-friend white guy, and the black former-alcoholic now-caterer sister), the two leads are really what makes the show work for me. I love that they love each other. And that they like each other. And that they're both really good at what they do. And it doesn't hurt that they're both pretty hot. And I've laughed out loud several times at the banter, especially between the leads.

Various reviewers and commenters have complained that there isn't enough tension in their marriage, that they're too happy. For example, a commenter at Shadow and Act wrote: “are we just watching attractive people blow stuff up interspersed with cute one liners?” To which my response is: You say that like it's a bad thing.

I admit I could have done without the word “sexpionage,” and I do get a little tired of the genre convention in which female spies invariably have to use their sexy wiles to seduce male bad guys. On the other hand, both leads get plenty of opportunities to remove clothing (Steven spends a surprising amount of time with his shirt off), and Samantha does get plenty of opportunities to do lots of other non-sexy spy stuff extremely well. And episode 2 didn't use the word “sexpionage” again, so I'm hoping that won't be back.

The show looks so far (after two episodes) like it'll fit neatly into the standard spy-show format, with the usual genre conventions and tropes; I don't think there'll be a lot of surprises, and I don't know if the show can sustain itself. But so far, I'm enjoying this more than any other new show I've watched in the past year; I hope it gets a chance to keep going.

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