Uncovering 'Undercovers': Why It Failed

The NBC spy drama starring Boris Kodjoe and Gugu Mbatha-Raw got plenty of buzz before it aired, but enthusiasm quickly fizzled. Is there a place on network TV for a black cast?

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NBC

It never stood a chance.

J.J. Abrams of Lost fame co-created Undercovers, revolving around two CIA agents, Samantha and Steven, who moonlighted as caterers. When they weren't whipping up dishes in the kitchen, Samantha's sister, Lizzy, ran the catering business, totally oblivious to what was really going on.

Sounds like a recipe for disaster, right? When you throw in the fact that the show was in a bad time slot, featured subpar writing and two lead actors who were (gasp!) black, it's not surprising that NBC pulled the plug after less than two months.

Starring Boris Kodjoe, known more for his good looks than his acting chops, and British newcomer Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Undercovers was expected to be a step in the right direction toward greater diversity on network television. Instead, it's leaving many to wonder what the future holds for black actors landing lead roles on the "Big Four" networks.

"Everybody wants that next great show that features a person of color in the lead, that is successful and breaks down a lot of these fears about getting a mostly white audience to watch a network television show [starring black actors]," Eric Deggans, a television and media critic for the St. Petersburg Times, told The Root. "That's the reason critics like me are always hopeful when a show comes along that really showcases an actor or actors of color."

But Undercovers had its share of handicaps to overcome.

"I thought NBC scheduled it very poorly," Deggans said. "They had it start off Wednesday nights when CBS was moving a really popular show, Survivor, from Thursdays to Wednesdays. One of the things you try not to do in television is start a night with a show that people don't know."

Another challenge? Black viewers, who many might have guessed would rally behind the show, never embraced it. Undercovers only cracked the top 10 on Target Market News' list of the top 25 broadcast shows in black households twice, and that was during its first two weeks on air. On Nov. 4, the night before the show was officially canceled, Undercovers finished 16th in black households behind Hawaii Five-0 and The Mentalist, both of which lack black lead characters.

For the viewers who remained loyal to Undercovers on a weekly basis, they were forced to sit through 60 minutes of what some critics have described as bad dialogue and poor writing.

Black actors in lead roles on network television will be few and far between when the last episode of Undercovers airs on Dec. 1. Blair Underwood plays President Elias Martinez in the confusing NBC science fiction thriller The Event, but the show has such poor ratings that NBC plans to relaunch it in February in hopes of attracting more viewers.