Undercovers: "Devices"
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Undercovers: "Devices"

Based on the underwhelming ratings for the first two episodes of Undercovers, I would guess the show is not long for this world. (Though I can’t imagine it would be cancelled before NBC’s critically and commercially dismal Outlaw.) I’ll be disappointed if Undercovers is pulled, and obviously not because I was enthralled by the first two middling episodes. As much as it’s a shame that such a thing would pass for ballsiness at this point in history, it was indeed ballsy of J.J. Abrams and Josh Reims to cast Boris Kodjoe and Gugu Mbatha-Raw in roles that could have just as easily gone to white actors. Should Undercovers fail, I fear that Hollywood, which is prone to bizarre, knee-jerk, industry wide reactions, will take the wrong lesson from it.

 I’m reminded of the perfectly adorable Queen Latifah vehicle Just Wright from this spring. It tanked, and a couple of stories in the trades suggested that Hollywood would conclude from its failure that black people don’t go to movies that aren’t directed by Tyler Perry. Never mind the fact that when I mentioned to people that I’d seen Just Wright, they either had no idea what I was talking about or vaguely remembered having heard of the film but had no idea it was in theaters. It would be a shame if the lesson of Undercovers is that you can’t put black leads into television shows that don’t necessarily call for them. The lesson here is that if someone crafts a clever, well-written, engaging show, and the network figures out the right way to package it and present it to the audience, you could cast sock puppets in the lead roles and it would still find its footing. Undercovers, up to this point, has not been that show.

“Devices” is still not totally that show, but it’s an improvement over the first two episodes. I’m open to the possibility that the pilot and “Instructions” lowered my expectations to the point that this episode simply stumbled over it. But I also think there were clear improvements here. For one thing, the quippy dialogue, which is hit-or-miss, was dialed down considerably in this episode. While it was peppered with one-liners from Hoyt and Leo, there didn’t seem to be as much effort to make Undercovers a marriage-is-hard sitcom with weapons. And the one-liners were pretty funny in most cases. I thought Hoyt’s semi-creepy man crush on Steven would wear thin quickly, but it’s still delivering the chuckles when deployed sparingly and at the right moments. Ben Schwartz is to be credited here as well, since his weaselly delivery manages to sell just about any punch line he’s given.

It was also a much sweeter episode than the last. If we’re going to be cheated out of the dramatic tension that would be created by Steven and Sam keeping secrets from each other, then the show has to give us cute, tender moments between a loving married couple. “Instructions,” in addition to riffing on its theme a little too literally, found the couple in a weird middle ground where there wasn’t enough strife or harmony to make it interesting. They were like that really happy couple that mildly snipes at each other in public for no apparent reason, and nobody likes that couple. Here, they seemed more real both as spies and as a couple. The idea that they’re still learning each other, since there’s so much of their lives they’ve chosen to keep confidential, was utilized nicely when Sam showed off her free-climbing skills. When there was discord between them, it grew out of their being torn between treating each other like agents and like husband and wife. Hopefully this is a dynamic that will be deepened and explored further over time, and in ways other than just having one of the Blooms make a rash, protocol-flouting choice when the other is in danger.

One of my biggest complaints about the first two episodes was how dead simple the missions were, and “Devices” wasn’t exactly a huge improvement in that regard. The execution ticked up a couple notches though. There was some nice use of gadgetry, courtesy of the episode’s title and theme, and more suspense here than in the first two episodes combined. The Blooms were tasked this week with meeting a sketchy informant to determine the veracity of his latest tip: a baddie trying to obtain a code breaker that would allow them access to the Holy Grail of spy shows, a list of undercover CIA operatives. When said informant is killed, they have to scramble to retrieve the device before the spies are exposed. I’ll admit I didn’t have high hopes for the episode following the scene between Steven and the informant. What was the narrative value of showing the audience that there were snipers at the ready during the meet? I’m not saying that it would have been the most original thing in the world to have the informant suddenly felled by a bullet just as he’s about to spill vital info—I’ve seen an episode or two of 24 in my day. But the reason that’s become a cliché is that it’s a startling and dramatic device. Showing the snipers before they started shooting (and even before Sam noticed them) enervated the scene.

Things picked up with the botched retrieval of the device and the rescue of jellybean-addicted math whiz Matias Faber, wherein our heroes started the resemble the team of professionals we’ve been led to believe they are. Sam’s fight with the henchman, while brief, was more competent and believable than any we’ve seen from this show so far. I also loved the dramatic pause when the Big Bad addressed Hoyt. It was a small touch, but like the gruyere in Sam’s “special” mac ‘n’ cheese, it’s the little details that make all the difference.

Stray observations:

  • I like Gerald McRaney here generally, but his having a bug up his ass at all times is already starting to grate. I hope that he’ll eventually get to a point of respecting the Blooms so we don’t have to suffer through his clenched-teeth delivery.
  • I’d like this show to stick around if only to see how they handle the inevitable incorporation of Lizzy into the missions after it no longer makes sense to keep her in the dark.
  • I’m unsure as to why the solvency of the catering company is such an issue. If Steven and Sam are being paid through the nose to do spy missions on the side, couldn’t they infuse the business with that cash?

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