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