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Why Did NBC Cancel ‘Undercovers’?

Aymar Jean Christian September 30, 2010 uncategorized 32 Comments

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.

ORIGINAL: After a sharp drop in ratings in its second week, the vultures are circling NBC’s Undercovers, the network’s much-hyped but unwatched JJ Abrams spy show .

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:

Was it the actors?

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.

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About The Author

Aymar Jean Christian is assistant professor of communication at Northwestern University. He writes about media and society for a number of publications. For more information, click the "About" tab at the top of the page.

32 Comments

  1. derek lee mcphatter September 30, 2010 at 9:30 pm

    yes I agree I agree. We’ve discussed this already. And now that I’m sitting through my first episode of Nikita I would push a bit further on the character angle. Watching Nikita kick butt and work towards redemption/revenge makes me realize I don’t think Boris and Mbatha-Raw could be cold, hard killers. As CIA operatives, I’m not scared or intimidated by them at all. And this is very,very bad. With Covert Affairs, I’m not particularly convinced the lead is lethal either, but her’s is a sort of buildungsroman for spies, she’s growing into it. And this gets to the deeper character part, we don’t get to know what it is about these cute Undercovers that drew them to become undercovers in the first place. It’s like they “majored in spying” and can do cool things, but we don’t know the motive. And yeah, that has nothing to do with their race. and it’s a credit they didn’t try to use conventional black urban street-cred as a sort of badge of toughness for the Undercovers, but that might have been a way to go

  2. Tom Baker October 7, 2010 at 7:55 am

    I hear all the criticisms and I just don’t see it. A show that shows Blacks in a good light deserves to be supported. Why would I support a show I don’t particularly like, you ask? People have been complaining ever since the invent of TV that Blacks aren’t represented and when they are, they are comedians, pimps or hookers.

    I hate Tyler Perry’s USA Network shows because I haven’t found them very funny and it reminds me of buffoonery. That is just my opinion.

    Regardless of all else, Boris Kodjoe and Gugu Mbatha-Raw are likeable and it’s an escape I want to take every week. Two Black leads portrayed in a positive light. If Undercovers gets canceled, I don’t foresee in the near future a network taking a second chance. It’s early in the morning and maybe I need my coffee before I comment on posts. It doesn’t seem to make much sense to me.

  3. Aymar Jean Christian October 7, 2010 at 2:03 pm

    Escapism is important, but I think most other people just aren’t that interested in Kodjoe or Mbatha-Raw! It’s sad, but true — the ratings aren’t good. :(

  4. James October 9, 2010 at 11:03 am

    Blacks have often been exploited in pop culture, and like all exploitation it runs its course. It is a shame that American culture has become so predictable and that any race can be so often exploited; but never accepted as part of the main stream by a majority of the population. I doubt that Hollywood will take much of a chance, again, on such programming for some time to come. Let’s face it along with this show, sales for hip-hop and rap have hit an all time low and the Presidents ratings are also in the tubes. I say, get over the fads Hollywood and get back some style.

  5. Diana October 23, 2010 at 12:13 am

    Undercovers is an awesome show! As a white woman, I think it is one of the better shows out there. What I don’t understand is why NBC didn’t put it on USA instead of on NBC. Everyone knows NBC is full of crap now and the only dramas on there (Law & Order) get more of an audience in syndication on USA. I wonder if Nielsen keeps track of what people watch on DVRs. I have never seen Undercovers when it actually comes on during its time slot. I only watch it, and everything else I watch on the major network stations, on DVR (except for ABC and FOX, but I watch those shows on Hulu rather than when they come on). Nobody watches tv during the time shows air anymore (unless you’re talking about DWTS psycho followers). NBC needs to get their act together. They used to rule the airwaves and now, they simply blow hot air into them with most of their crap programming. I’ve even heard their considering cancelling Chuck! Are they mental? They better start figuring out how to get true ratings information from DVR programs and OnDemand. Seriously, get with the program NBC!

  6. jon November 3, 2010 at 6:56 am

    As much as Black people deserve their time on the screen I’m not going to watch a crap show just for that reason. My problem was so much with them anyway it is the awful script that goes no where.

  7. Jimmy November 8, 2010 at 2:23 am

    I looked at the show basically,because Gugu Mbatha Raw is hot. The storylines in the show are very basic. I don’t know what it is,but,there’s something this show needs,like,maybe go into why they were really called out of retired status. That,would,inject something into the show,but,it would have to be something really good. These spies are definitely not Bourne Indentity material.

  8. Hassan Shabazz November 12, 2010 at 6:14 am

    Undercover s is an outstanding show. I think its appalling to suggest that black male actors have to be funny or act silly in order to be on TV. Black Actors and Actress cab play serious roles as good as anyone. We can be romantic, loving, caring and serious. The time for stereotyping is over.

  9. brittaney November 23, 2010 at 1:55 am

    why no no i love that show but i kno the real reason they are cancling it because the main to characters are african desecnt i know iv seen it too many times in shows in the particualr genra it like if the black person is playing a thig or wanna b rapper they want to cancel it whay they dontwant to but a better image up
    or they might say it didnt have enough viers pleease they set them selves up for faluir airng around the same time all these stupid reality shows are on and dancing with the stars and all that other bull crap that is not intertaing in any way
    then u have the time slot its just a bad time 7/8 c what thats like a busy time for most ppl getting off work getting the kids ready for school or adults going to school it jus a hectic time of day then nbc c that they havent checked the dvrs ratings y not they need to i bet then they will c
    also did they for get about HULU.COM thats were i watch it i jus watch it on my time and i bet thats what most people are doing as well who has time to sit infront of a tv all day every week on sunday i log on to hulu and i watch undercovers they can take it off tv if they could at least leave it on hulu as a mattter of fact i jus got done watching the lasted epposide and i got off at 11 and it ias now 1 am
    so nbc please to take it away just move it around u can even makea webosode type of show where it has its own channel on hulu .
    its really a good show reminds me of dark angel i miss that show too

  10. Kimberly November 25, 2010 at 5:14 pm

    I am an African American female and was so excited when I saw Boris Kodjoe would be staring in a sitcom. As you said other than comedy there are no sitcoms with African Americans as leads.

    I have to be honest, I was very excited about the show NBC did a great job marketing it. As you know, you only get one shot, I saw the first episode and was ver dissapointed. Kodjoe was too much of a nice guy and the characters and plot was not believable. For that reason I didn’t watch it again until I heard it was being cancelled. The 3rd episode somewhat sparked my interest but, it is already too late. Anyone who saw the first episode will not be tuning in to see another.

    I hope this does not discourage networks to broadcast or support minority lead shows.

  11. Chelle November 27, 2010 at 1:25 pm

    Makes me wish Charles Malik Whitfield (Agen Hendrikson on Supernatural) had been available for Undercovers. Or Coby Bell (Jesse on Burn Notice). Both of those actors would have been stunning in Kodjoe’s role. I’ve caught a few minutes of a couple of episodes, and I just wasn’t drawn in by the leads, or the story line.

  12. Erika November 29, 2010 at 3:58 pm

    I agree with most of the critiques. I do appreciate the fact that the casting was color blind, but I don’t think the show was canceled because the leads are Black. It just wasn’t consistently good nor did it meet expectations. It was very frustrtating for me as an African American woman to have a desire to support the show but weekly being disappointed by the episodes. I think the element of edge and toughness was lacking and needed for a show like this. We expect the same level of ass kicking witnessed with Alias and Mission Impossible.
    I think the comment about “maybe a black star that could comedy” is a bit off putting and insulting. A show with Black leads does not require that comedic elements be incorporated to make the characters believable or endearing. I also think it is not JJ Abrams best work. A action drama with a bit of lightness and wit is not his fortay. That worked with Hart to Hart back in the day, but not for this show. Totally agree that it was hard to root for the main characters. I thought “Major Dad, Gerald McRainey was totally miscast as the hardball chief who barked out their assignments to them. They tried to add in the twist of some deeper plot going on but NBC has not given the series enough time to tease it out, and most of the viewing audience probably doesn’t care enough about the characters to want to know more. I think the first episode could have been spent with flashbacks to establish characters and how the Blooms got to their current state, and still maintaining the code of secrecy that they as a couple shared about their past. It also felt like Gugu had moments where better acting was sacrificed for holding the American accent. Oh Undercovers, farewell!

  13. Aymar Jean Christian November 29, 2010 at 4:25 pm

    Yea, I’m interested in what JJ Abrams says about the cancellation. I’m not sure how much he talks about his work, but I haven’t seen anything.

    Thanks for your thoughts on the rest of the show’s plot and casting. I have to admit I stopped watching. I think a lot of people did, which is why the show never had time to grow.

  14. Liz Schmidt November 29, 2010 at 8:16 pm

    I’m sorry to hear it’s been cancelled. First of all, Boris Kodjoe and Gugu Mbatha-Raw don’t look black.They’re white/black. So I don’t think that has a thing to do with the show being cancelled. They play well together,very appealing to the eye and the places they go are great to see the scenery.Places you and I won’t most like visit.
    It’s maybe just not the right time for the show. Seems like audiences enjoy the 30 something,unemployeed down and out,gay,roomate type of shows.Or shows that have a wife who comes home tired, the husband is too tired and they have kids who take care of themselves.hmm, something like our society huh? Wonder why anyeone wants to watch a show like that but it’s Sad but true.What about the people over 60 who have their lives together and just want plain entertainment? Seems like the networks are targeting the younger generation,and yet THEY”E the ones who claim to not have enough time in the day or are too tired to spend family time together. Why are they watching t.v. and not spending time with their children instead of watching t.v.?WE need to have more entertaining shows,just to sit and enjoy for the retired people out here. There, that’s my story and I’m stickin to it :)

  15. Tim December 2, 2010 at 1:17 am

    Aymar hit the nail right on the head w/ everything he said in this article!!!

  16. Wanda December 17, 2010 at 12:16 am

    Bottom line: This show should have been on USA with all the other spy and covert mission shows like Covert Affairs and White Collar. It would have fit perfectly as part of that line up. But let’s be honest here. It wasn’t a horrible show or a great show(again,like Covert Affairs) but there are some people that just can’t see past the color of the leads’ skin.This is the era of “teabaggers” and people being openly racist. It would be nice if USA picked this show up,but I don’t hold out much hope. By the way,Liz Schmidt, there are many light skinned black people in the world,obviously you don’t get out much.

  17. elizabeth February 1, 2011 at 10:06 am

    I’m not surprised! It was a wonderful show with two beautiful black people being portrayed in a positive way. “AS LEAD actors”. I enjoyed watching them every week.

  18. Nikki February 3, 2011 at 8:18 pm

    I was a good show and I believed it showed diversity but Americans not ready for that. Might be another network could pick up on it. Whenever I like a show they end up cancelling it. For Example: 24; Heroes; and Fastlines.

  19. Debra February 5, 2011 at 1:00 am

    I am not to do the whole race card.But i enjoy the show it nice to sit down and watch something were sex or being air slut was the main topic of choicce i have no idea who tv station are going after but i am ready to stop watching all together get netflix and say to hell with TV.

  20. Addie February 16, 2011 at 4:46 pm

    I enjoyed watching the show. I wanted to be able to watch television without the “Real T.V.” effect.

  21. stacee February 24, 2011 at 12:33 am

    I am astounded at NBC not picking up the Undercovers! My family is in the film industry! whoever thinks this freaking show wasnt worth picking up obviously has no skills when it comes to critisizing anything about this show! this show was the best show made in 7 years the actors were highly talented very intellegent! great on the eyes as well. the scripts to each episode were amazing! so james bond! i feel so upset that this industry has such blinders on!!! the film footage was magnificent the ideas were just perfect and the acting was all of that as well! if i had the bucks to bring this one back man… it’d be the very first thing my agenda!!!! wanted the writers and the actors and film techs to know u all rocked this one outta the park! u all did such a great job! was my only excitement as far as any t.v. watching went! this show was my only exciting reason to watch t.v. and see what they would come up with this week! wow cable t.v. i hope ur hearing me loud and clear! this could be another “cold case” which was a brilliant creation! thank god im not that part of my family who is part of this industry cause it seems real cut throat and ridiculously political! someone in this network just wasnt ready to see the people behind this one suceed! “Undercovers u rocked it!” so pist and sad i dont get to see what these great imaginations created thru this show anymore! NBC u fffing suck and thank god for CBS cause now there isnt any show i will watch on NBC! rock on CBS!

  22. Anna Jeffers May 11, 2011 at 12:45 pm

    I thought this was a great show. Sexpionage said it all. LA Law had all it’s sexy men this show had Boris & Gugu. Black or white it doesn’t matter I think this show worked. In reality it wouldn’t be very plausible to think restaurant owners could just dash off on a whim to stop some act of crime but it was the escape factor for us. I hope USA picks it up. They seem to have a monopoly on good series.

  23. chen June 5, 2011 at 1:01 pm

    This was one of the best shows on tv, literally flawless in a mind free of skepticism. It was excellent, the low ratings are 1. Not actually that low, for a show subject to racist boycotting (concious or sub) and 2. An outofdate and undeserving tool of judgement. In this daynage online distribution is more popular than that of television, this show should been evrywhere and had more faith bestowed upon it. The two leads were challenging, that is why a lot of people didn’t get them

    Its placement (or lack of) was wrong
    Jjabrams stopping writing after 3 episodes was wrong
    not pushing the show worldwide was wrong
    Some creative choices (writing) were wrong
    Its judgement was wrong
    this blog article is wrongly published opinion

  24. annonymous June 8, 2011 at 4:15 pm

    thats so stupid! THAT TV SHOW WAS GREAT! I ABSOLUTELY 100% DO NOT BELIEVE IT WAS THE ACTORS OR THE SCRIPT!!! THAT SHOW WAS AMAZING WHO CARES IF GUGU MBHTHA-RAW IS LIKE ANGELINA JOLIE, GUGU MBHTHA RAW IS HER OWN PERSON!!!!NBC NEEDS TO BRING THAT SHOW BACK ON AND IF YOU THINK THE SCRIPT WAS SO BAD THEN FIX IT!!!DONT JUST CANCEL THE SHOW!!!YOU MADE ME AND HUNDREDS OF PEOPLE SOOO MAD!!!!

  25. Chico-Rei July 23, 2011 at 12:14 pm

    I’ve finally got to watch the show and I have to say I’m very impressed with it and can’t believe it’s been cut, I didn’t just like it because the characters are black I liked it because it’s a good show which is fast paced and a good way of escapism

  26. Antonia-Chicago December 11, 2011 at 9:04 am

    Why would you put them opposite of X Factor that made the program set up for failure. I looked forward to seeing them every week. I hope another station would pick them up or have sense enough to put them on a night when there is nothing good on.

  27. Antonia-Chicago December 11, 2011 at 9:25 am

    I think they looked black enough. Blacks are of all shades and we are beautiful no matter what. Why do they have to be real dark to be consider as black enough. I do not understand how they thought the sitcom could make it while X Factor was on the same day. They were set up for failure.

  28. Julie March 25, 2012 at 11:24 am

    I remain appauled that this show was cancelled. A show that showcased the linguistic and experiential diversity of people of African descent. Wow. Just to see each of the characters effortlessly converse in three different languages and to have travelled the world and navigate European cities like natives, was beyond refreshing. It was beautiful to behold, and it something African American children and children of all races need to see. The children need to be informed that this is not a fantasy from a script. This is reality for millions of non-American black persons around the world.

    I think the show was cancelled because the network doesn’t think that American viewers are ready to see the truth, that people of African descent are everywhere and have a miriad of experiences and expertise. That we are in the millitary, law enforcement and government, and have contributions presently and historically that are tremendously beyond the comic chains that American broadcasters promote. Until I moved to NYC from a smaller American city, I had no idea that there were people who look like me who speak Dutch, Russian or German. BET should produce the show. The show is a beautiful reflection of our diversity and intelligence and I remain very angry that it was cancelled. Yet I am not surprised….

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