Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Undercovers: "Instructions"

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As much as I wanted to like Undercovers, I’m not sure I’ll ever been able to evaluate it without comparing it to other shows that are doing what it does with far more flair. I’m fine with the fact that Undercovers isn’t Alias. In fact, I don’t really want it to be Alias. I’m fine with the basic premise here: standalone stories, quippy dialogue, pretty people, scenic locales, fight sequences. It all sounds perfectly reasonable. I like Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Boris Kodjoe. I like Ben Schwartz. I like Major Dad. I like Turks. I like Caicos. But it’s still missing the mark for me because it’s just not particularly well-executed as a spy thriller.

I was hoping the simplicity of last week’s mission to save Leo was virtue of the fact that it was the pilot, and so many other elements of the show had to be introduced. Who knows, maybe that’s still true and the show is focusing on fleshing out the characters a bit before getting into some twistier plots. But if that’s not the case, if this episode and last’s standalone missions are the type we’ll be seeing all season, I can’t say I’d make Undercovers a priority. I can easily see my DVR getting clogged with episodes of this show if the missions remain this simplistic.

This installment involved the kidnapping of a scientist with expertise in making miniature explosive by a trio of rogue agents from a Blackwater-style private security firm. After using, ahem, sexpionage to corner one of the henchmen, Steven and Samantha find out too late that the henchman is actually the mastermind. The team, which includes Leo who’s been added permanently as the technology guy, then has to track down said mastermind before he can blow up the Global Business & Industry Summit. I wanted about three more elements to this story but it turned out to be just as simple as it appeared to be, one flimsy red herring, but totally straightforward otherwise.

J.J. Abrams, who co-wrote this episode with co-creator Josh Reims, has talked about how he wanted to make Undercovers frothy and fun, with lots of cutesy banter. On that front, I think the show is delivering. The episode’s title “Instructions” came from Steven’s refusal to read the owner’s manual on any appliance or gadget—men, who needs ‘em!—and Samantha’s wifely frustration with it, all of which impacted the mission when Steven incorrectly installed a tracking device on the bad guy. Initially I rolled my eyes at the inclusion of such an obvious men-are-from-Mars marital conflict, but the further I got into the episode the more I warmed to it. I think I came around because it’s clear the breezy tone is a huge priority that I figured I might as well enjoy that since the mission wasn’t very absorbing. And once I focused on it more, I found the dialogue to be winning, if a little too precious at times.

The inclusion of Leo on the team lends some possibilities for interesting tension once the show starts playing with a relationship between Leo and Lizzy, which seems inevitable. A show like this eventually has to deal with the secrets spies keep from the people they love, and the inconvenient ways those secrets manifest themselves in their relationships. If Leo and Lizzy starts to date, Samantha will have to provide Lizzy with a good reason why not, other than the bit about her alcoholism recovery. And if Lizzy finds out that Leo and Samantha dated, her relationship with him, and Steven, and his presence generally speaking should start to set off alarms. It would be a semi-interesting way to get the ball rolling on the suspicious loved one angle, and something I hope the show pursues.

But the bottom line here is that there are a lot of shows I go to for beautiful people and zippy dialogue. When I turn on a show like this one, I want to see deft, gadgety, clever cloak and dagger, with interesting stories that surprise me and make me feel like the characters are genuinely imperiled. I haven’t seen that kind of show yet from Undercovers, and I won’t be invested until I see something that resembles an average episode of Burn Notice.


Stray observations:

  • The shot of Steven and Samantha reading confidential dossiers in bed together was kind of adorable.
  • “You tasted my scones?” “No I didn’t taste your scones.”
  • “Who says that? ‘Do sex?’” I say that now.
  • Is there such thing as gay bad guy? I think it would be interesting, for once, to see a scenario in a spy show where a guy pays no attention to the hot-girl bait.
  • “You can’t always trust Wikipedia. Turns out Burt Reynolds and Tom Selleck are not twins.”