Iron chefs

‘Un­der­cov­ers,’ the new J.J. Abrams and Josh Reims show, is about mar­ried cater­ers who do their spying on the side.

Los Angeles Times - - Calendar - mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

MARY MCNAMARA TELE­VI­SION CRITIC >>> J.J. Abrams and Josh Reims’ “Un­der­cov­ers,” which pre­mieres Wed­nes­day, prom­ises to be a happy ad­di­tion to the strug­gling phoenix that is the NBC lineup, and not just be­cause its leads are both black. Though there’s noth­ing wrong with tun­ing in be­cause of that.

We give points around here for try­ing some­thing new, and in the Year of Our Lord 2010, there are just too many white folks on Amer­i­can TV, and way too many of them are play­ing lawyers, cops and par­ents. The leads of “Un­der­cov­ers” are spies, and while spies are not un­heard of these days, they’re also mar­ried. Who can re­sist an ac­tion-packed, ban­ter-heavy spy show that also ex­plores mod­ern mar­riage? “Un­der­cov­ers” is all that and Paris too.

Steven (Boris Kod­joe) and Sa­man­tha (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) Bloom are CIA op­er­a­tives turned cater­ers (which raises the ques­tion: Which job re­quires more mus­cle and tac­ti­cal savvy?). One fine day, as they strug­gle to keep all their pre-driz­zled plates in the air — their busi­ness is in the red, their mar­riage is not what it once was — who should come knock­ing but the al­ways-wel­come

Ger­ald McRaney. Well, ac­tu­ally it’s a guy called Carl­ton Shaw, but he’s played by McRaney, which, given his sig­na­ture mil­i­tary bear­ing and small mus­tache, can mean only one thing: Their coun­try needs them again.

In fact, their friend and Sa­man­tha’s for­mer part­ner, Leo Nash (Carter MacIntyre), has gone missing. Hav­ing vowed to put their re­la­tion­ship above their train­ing, the Blooms refuse, forc­ing Shaw to de­liver a sur­pris­ingly sub­stan­tial speech about the na­ture of re­spon­si­bil­ity. Steven and Sam are not un­moved, and next thing we know, they’re Mr. and Mrs. Smith, only nicer — happy to bring down in­ter­na­tional king­pins, but they’re not, you know, paid as­sas­sins. This isn’t Show­time.

Off they go, from Madrid to Paris to Moscow, with the req­ui­site Pen­tagon Plat­inum card (“What­ever you need,” Shaw tells them), a wardrobe that runs from high fashion to cou­ture, a side­kick (“Parks and Recre­ation’s” Ben Schwartz) with a spy-crush on Steven, and the feisty ban­ter of an old mar­ried cou­ple.

Could that ban­ter be a lit­tle testier? Could the mar­riage be a lit­tle rock­ier? Yes and yes. The writ­ers seem so concerned with en­sur­ing that their char­ac­ters are preter­nat­u­rally de­cent and lik­able that they go for sunny skies when there should be storm clouds.

In the pi­lot, the main source of ten­sion — Steven be­lieves that Leo has turned and Sa­man­tha does not — never quite gets off the ground or un­der ei­ther char­ac­ter’s skin, which is a shame. What made “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” so de­li­cious was that love never meant hav­ing to say, “That’s OK, honey, don’t worry about it.”

But Kod­joe and MbathaRaw are so en­er­getic and ap­peal­ing that it’s hard to take your eyes off them long enough to worry about such mat­ters, and they both seem up to just about any­thing. An old pro like McRaney can keep the se­ries grounded with one hand tied be­hind his back, and MacIntyre’s Nash pro­vides a grin-flash­ing foil to Kod­joe’s more se­ri­ous Steven. So it’s the chem­istry be­tween the two leads that will make or break “Un­der­cov­ers.”

As shows as di­verse as “Moon­light­ing” and “Dr. Who” have proved, ad­ven­ture is al­ways more fun when there’s ro­man­tic fris­son in the back­ground. The prospect of that oc­cur­ring with a mar­ried cou­ple is a fine, fresh twist, as is the vi­sion of them at­tempt­ing to run their cater­ing busi­ness while in­fil­trat­ing mil­i­tary in­stal­la­tions and high-pro­file events.

“This re­cep­tion cost a for­tune,” Sa­man­tha says af­ter they’ve parachuted into a diplo­matic wed­ding.

Kod­joe and Mbatha-Raw seem more than ca­pa­ble of per­form­ing mir­a­cles in the wide-open space be­tween reg­u­lar life and spy games, so it’s up to the writ­ers to give them a nice, tight high­wire to walk.

PI­LOT:

Justin Lu­bin

Steven (Boris Kod­joe) and Sa­man­tha (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) seek a missing friend.

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