UPDATE: Undercovers has been canceled. Episodes will air in its original time slot for three more weeks; two more episodes do not have air dates as of yet. This is a bad but anticipated sign for minority-led shows: Jimmy Smits’ Outlaw and Undercovers were NBC’s two lowest rated scripted shows this fall. NBC had given fans (what few there were) some hope when it ordered new scripts in October, but that was merely a token gesture.
The stakes for Undercovers were high, as the show is one of the few non-comedies in television history to exclusively star black people. Others, like Frank’s Place, have been short-lived.
There are a number of things the show did right and a bunch it did wrong, and I wanted to highlight them so as to kill the “black people can’t sell a TV drama” meme that will inevitably develop after the show is canceled.
What went wrong?
What Did NOT Go Wrong :
Was it Marketing?
Answer: No. For all intents and purposes, NBC pushed Undercovers as much if not more than its other series, like The Event. Commercials were everywhere, touting JJ Abrams’ involvement and its two hot leads.
Was it Production (and Post-Production)?
Answer: No. Judging from the pilot, Undercovers was not cheaply or lazily made. The cinematography was gorgeous, the series shot in multiple locations (and presumably outside the US). Costumes were sleek. The editing was quick.
Was it the Concept?
Answer: No. Despite the lackluster success of Knight and Day (although, let’s be real, it made $200+ million worldwide), the concept of a “couple” of spies has proved bankable in the past, most notably in True Lies and Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Spy TV shows like Alias, to which Undercovers was originally compared, and the current Covert Affairs, to which it should be compared, were moderate to mega hits.
What DID Go Wrong:
Answer: Yes. Boris Kodjoe and Gugu Mbatha-Raw are a good-looking team, and they’re nice to watch, just not to listen to. Kodjoe’s a nice guy but lacks grit, gravitas or charm beyond his smile. Mbatha-Raw is cute and can banter with the best of them, but she wasn’t as believable as an action star as Angelina Jolie, nor is she as endearing as Jamie Lee Curtis; you neither admire nor root for her (like we do Piper Perabo in Covert Affairs). In my opinion, Undercovers could have done better to shell out for bigger or more engaging stars (don’t ask me who), maybe a black star who could comedy (like most male actors) or a female with a tough-chick reputation (like a Zoe Saldana, who’s not going to do TV).
At their best, globetrotting spy shows provide great, escapist entertainment, which is perfect for this cultural moment (i.e. Glee and the rise of sitcom). We just need characters compelling enough to escape with.
Was it the pilot?
Answer: Yes. It’s hard to pinpoint the problem on the pilot itself, since the test of the pilot is typically the second week (whether or not viewers stay). But Undercovers started off below expectations. First week ratings are really a test of the marketing and the stars. Still, the pilot did little to inspire confidence. As my colleague Khadijah White noted to me: the pilot forgot what makes TV interesting: conflict! We don’t really buy their relationship is in trouble; they seem to get along and they’re so cute. The CIA operation is resolved by the end, and the mystery — the CIA wants them for something — is too vague and understated to keep us interested.
Was it the writing?
Answer: Yes and no. I appreciated Undercovers‘ snappy, fast-paced dialogue, but it failed to establish personalities for its leads. The hardest part of television is getting viewers, in 22-44 minutes, to care about and invest time in one or two characters they’ve never seen before. It’s why spin-offs are so common; they sidestep the hurdle. Right now I can’t name one thing about Steven or Samantha Bloom. They’re nice people, cordial, occasionally funny. They don’t fit into any type (type A, immature, brash, political, hotheaded, laissez-faire) except financially comfortable and generally pleasant. That’s not good. That said, it’s clear the writers paid more attention to writing than your average network drama, but this isn’t saying much.
In short, Undercovers was a decently executed but ultimately underwhelming project that was hindered by its lack of edge and depth not ambition and quality. It would have done better on USA*, alongside White Collar and Covert Affairs, but at a time when the big four need to be taking more risks, it didn’t make the cut. Nevertheless, judging from IMDB, Undercovers has half a season already shot, so unless NBC feels it’s completely wasting the time slot — which, judging by the ratings, could be true — it’s has more time to prove itself. Otherwise NBC will burn it off on weekends, online or maybe even USA.
*A USA pick-up isn’t out of the question, since NBC owns it, but it’s probably the case that Undercovers is too expensive for the cabler, even though it’s worth much more than its parent.