Creative, real and di­verse

The in­trigue in NBC’S in­ter­na­tional spy ca­per comes from its cast­ing as well as its plots, writes Lynn Elber

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - GOODDRINKING -

STEVEN and Sa­man­tha Bloom are an ap­peal­ing cou­ple whose in­ter­na­tional spy capers on NBC’S Un­der­cov­ers prom­ise to be slick, sexy and fun – the kind of es­capist fare that fills many an hour of TV.

But the new show’s in­trigue comes from its cast­ing as well as its plots: Ger­man ac­tor Boris Kod­joe and Bri­tish- born Gugu MbathaRaw are the stars in charge of mak­ing this romp work, and both are black.

It is a per­sis­tent rar­ity in TV to have black leads out­side a Grey’s Anatomy- style en­sem­ble, and Un­der­cov­ers is rarer still be­cause it is not an African-amer­i­can sit­com or a black-ori­ented drama fraught with so­cial is­sues or fam­ily pathos.

This time around, two stun­ning, ac­com­plished and hap­pily wed black char­ac­ters just get to have fun. The se­ries airs next month on M-net Se­ries at 9.30pm on Tues­days.

“It’s huge progress,” said writer and film-maker John Ri­d­ley ( Three Kings, Third Watch).

“As a per­son of colour I love to see is­sue-ori­ented stuff, but at the same time it’s great to have two black peo­ple do­ing what two white peo­ple would do on any TV show.”

Boris Kod­joe, whose cred­its in­clude the movie Res­i­dent Evil: After­life and TV’S Soul Food, is glad to be part of a break­through for US tele­vi­sion in gen­eral and the net­work in par­tic­u­lar.

“It’s quite a proud mo­ment,” Boris said of Un­der­cov­ers.

He calls it “re­fresh­ing” for a show to tell light-hearted sto­ries about a cou­ple and their ad­ven­tures that have “noth­ing to do with them be­ing black”.

The de­ci­sion to broaden the cast­ing net be­yond white ac­tors re­sulted from the in­cli­na­tion and clout of JJ Abrams, whose heavy­weight cred­its in­clude Lost and Alias, and fel­low pro­ducer Josh Reims ( Broth­ers and Sis­ters).

“We didn’t want to do a show that looks like 10 other shows on TV… We just wanted to do some­thing that felt fresh,” Josh said.

Var­i­ous ac­tors were con­sid­ered, but “we thought if we could cast two black ac­tors it would be great.”

There was only en­cour­age­ment from the net­work and the stu­dio.

In the end, Josh said, the best choices proved to be Boris, 38, and Gugu, 28, a stage-trained ac­tress who starred on Broad­way with Jude Law in Ham­let, on TV in Doc­tor Who and in a Tom Hanks film, Larry Crowne.

Gugu, who like Boris em­ploys an im­pec­ca­ble Amer­i­can ac­cent in Un­der­cov­ers, was un­aware that black ac­tors faced long odds for cer­tain US tele­vi­sion roles.

Her ex­pe­ri­ence in Bri­tain has been dif­fer­ent.

“To be hon­est, I’ve been re­ally blessed to play eth­ni­cally spe­cific and non-eth­ni­cally spe­cific roles back home,” she said, “both on the stage and TV. I think there’s a dif­fer­ent cul­tural legacy in the UK than in the US.”

As for the NBC se­ries, “it’s nice that it’s ground-break­ing, but it shouldn’t be in this day and age”, she says.

Boris agrees. The en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try needs to “make choices that are creative and real and di­verse” and stop fol­low­ing tired paths that ig­nore di­ver­sity, he says.

He was ini­tially re­luc­tant to read for Un­der­cov­ers be­cause he’d lost too many jobs when pro­duc­ers, who praised his au­di­tion, later told him their show needed to go “in an­other di­rec­tion”.

In­vari­ably that meant a white ac­tor had won the role, Boris said.

It is the side­kicks on Un­der­cov­ers who are white, played by Carter Macintyre and Ben Schwartz. Ger­ald Mcraney is the Blooms’ boss, Carl­ton Shaw, who brings the cou­ple back to work for the CIA five years af­ter they quit to en­joy mar­ried life.

The ca­per genre has found a com­fort­able home on TV.

Black-head­lined fare, how­ever, has long been a tough sell.

Ac­claimed ac­tor James Earl Jones has been in sev­eral short­lived se­ries, most no­tably the 1995 fam­ily drama Un­der One Roof.

Snoops, a de­tec­tive se­ries star­ring Tim Reid ( WKRP in Cincin­nati) and real- life wife Daphne Maxwell Reid, de­buted in 1989 and was gone af­ter just a few months.

Tim’s crit­i­cally praised Frank’s Place (1988) fared no bet­ter.

Other at­tempts in­cluded Get Christie Love, star­ring Teresa Graves as a sexy de­tec­tive. The show aired from Septem­ber 1974 to July 1975.

Shaft, with Richard Roundtree in his big- screen de­tec­tive role, lasted less than a year in the mid1970s.

This time around, will view­ers dig Un­der­cov­ers?

A long-stand­ing rule in se­ries de­vel­op­ment was to avoid mak­ing a pro­gramme “ex­clu­sion­ary”, said former TV ex­ec­u­tive and his­to­rian Tim Brooks (co-author of The Com­plete Di­rec­tory to Prime­time Net­work and Cable TV Shows).

“When you have a pro­gramme al­most en­tirely in a black set­ting, white view­ers feel that that is not their world,” Tim said.

There’s typ­i­cally an ex­emp­tion for sit­coms, which can draw a mul­tira­cial au­di­ence with all- black casts.

“Ex­am­ples of this abound, rang- ing from The Fresh Prince of Be­lAir to The Cosby Show. But dra­mas about re­la­tion­ships hit closer to home,” he said.

John doesn’t buy that think­ing. Largely white Hol­ly­wood de­ci­sion­mak­ers are sim­ply drawn to projects and char­ac­ters they are fa­mil­iar with, he con­tends, and it takes an in­flu­en­tial pro­ducer such as Abrams to see the need for change and force it. And, Boris notes, do it very well. “Josh Reims and JJ Abrams are ge­nius writ­ers, and that’s what it comes down to.

“The rest is re­ally up to the au­di­ence,” he said. – Sapa-ap

Un­der­cov­ers.

RAR­ITY: Boris Kod­joe and Gugu Mbatha-raw star in

SLICK, SEXY AND FUN: Catch the two ac­tors on M-net Se­ries at 9.30pm next month.

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