The Root Recap: Undercovers and Detroit 1-8-7

Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Boris Kodjoe (Chris Haston, NBC Universal)
Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Boris Kodjoe (Chris Haston, NBC Universal)


I want to like Undercovers, NBC TV's highly hyped new series; I really do. I can get behind a show that features an international, multilingual, gourmet-cooking-full-time-but-spying-on-the-side, happily married couple who just happen to be black. But while I really, really appreciate the effort — and the eye candy — Undercovers, which debuted Wednesday night, doesn't quite live up to the hype. Sure, it's light and breezy, but it doesn't have enough snap, crackle and pop to delineate itself from the rest of the pack. Where it should be sharp edges, it's all blunt lines.


None of this is the fault of Boris Kodjoe and Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who have chemistry to spare. As former CIA agents Steven and Samantha Bloom, they acquit themselves admirably, speaking English, Spanish, French and Russian like natives while jumping out of planes, whipping up catered feasts for Chinese-Orthodox Jewish weddings and drop-kicking black-clad assassins.

So what's wrong with Undercovers? That's a hard one to pin down. On paper, at least, it's got everything it needs: charismatic leads, high production values, exotic locales, funny one-liners. It also has writer-director J.J. Abrams (Lost, Fringe), who took the hoary Star Trek franchise and made it hip, fresh and new. Call Undercovers a case of almost, but not quite.


The show opens with Steven and Samantha, two retired spies-turned-caterers who are madly prepping for the aforementioned interethnic, kosher wedding when they get a surprise visit from Carlton Shaw (Gerald McRaney), who's been sent by "the agency" to reactivate them. Apparently Leo, their onetime colleague in the spying business, has gone missing. Sure, they've got a wedding to cater, but Steve and Samantha are soon jetting through Europe, squabbling (turns out Leo is Samantha's ex), kung fu-ing and committing acts of "sexpionage." (There's no better way to get the goods from a bad guy's cell phone than by pretending to seduce him. This also provides a perfect excuse for Mbatha-Raw to show off her Pilates-ized, lingerie-clad bod.)

It is fun? Sure, in spots. Does it make sense? Not a bit. Why, exactly, did they need to jump out of a plane in order to attend a wedding in Spain? Huh? And once they'd jumped out of said plane, how did Samantha manage to swap out her parachute and paratrooper pants for a gold lamé gown and a blowout? But given a better script, the preposterousness wouldn't matter, because good writing serves up the ridiculous with a wink. Instead, Undercovers' clunky writing clods along, never giving the viewer enough room to suspend disbelief.

It's a little bit Mr. and Mrs. Smith, a little bit Burns and Allen, a little bit James Bond. Here's hoping that by the second episode, the show finds its groove.

Dial 9-1-1

Watching ABC's Detroit 1-8-7, we can't help wondering, does the world really need another police procedural? After all, HBO's The Wire was the definitive cop show, filled with complex characters and compelling, no-win situations. In David Simon's world, there were no good guys and bad guys. Life was dirty and gritty and flawed; everyone had an agenda. The Wire took the cop-show conceit and elevated it to art, a five-season televised novel with Dickensian overtones.


Detroit 1-8-7 is not art. It sure thinks it's art, though, with its deep, saturated sepia colors and its deep, brooding hero, Detective Louis Fitch, played by Michael Imperioli (Sopranos). But it's really just a black velvet painting, a formulaic police drama with slick production values and a funky soundtrack. (This is Detroit, after all.)

There's James McDaniel (NYPD Blue), playing the Italian-speaking detective who can't wait to buy his house in Tuscany; the hot Latina detective, Ariana Sanchez (Natalie Martinez), given to pronouncing, "I grew up four blocks from here. Every time I come up on one of these [murders], I pray it's not someone I know." Then there's Aman Mahajan (Shaun Majumder), the Indian detective who loads up his hotdog with ketchup because that's the American way; and Damon Washington (Jon Michael Hill), the young brother who just made detective and whose very pregnant wife keeps calling him at the most inopportune moments. But they're just sketches rather than fully executed portraits.


As homicide detectives, they are, as one character puts it, "the last assembly line" in Detroit. And certainly, murder seems to be the only thing produced on these mean streets, from the white guy in the Hugo Boss suit found shot to death to the "pharmacy double" homicide at the corner drugstore. Par for the course in a cop show.

Everything gets wrapped up a little too neatly at the end — the three murders are the work of one suspect — with a nice little hostage situation to finish things off. Fitch, of course, saves the day, from rescuing the hot Latina cop from a burning car to talking down the hostage taker-murderer. Which is what burns me the most about this show: For all its diversity, it's still up to the white cop to walk on water.



So … to answer the question, do we really need another cop show? Not if it's this one.


Teresa Wiltz is The Root's senior culture writer.

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