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Television Review

‘Undercovers’ makes international espionage a little too cute

Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Boris Kodjoe play married spies. Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Boris Kodjoe play married spies. (Chris Haston/NBC)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / September 22, 2010

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Last season, NBC put its money on Jay Leno in prime time and lost in a big way. Now, the fourth-place network is trying to climb out of the pit, with the help of a Jerry Bruckheimer action series (“Chase’’), a mythology sci-fi thriller (“The Event’’), a Jimmy Smits vehicle (“Outlaw’’), and yet another franchise drama (“Law & Order: Los Angeles’’).

Poor NBC. None of these efforts has promised greatness so far, and neither does the most prestigious of NBC’s new shows, “Undercovers,’’ from “Lost’’ and “Alias’’ creator J.J. Abrams. “Undercovers,’’ which premieres tonight at 8 on Channel 7, is one of Abrams’s weakest TV ventures, one that is as bland as “Lost,’’ “Alias,’’ “Felicity,’’ and “Fringe’’ are original. The light-hearted international espionage series is predictable, pointless, and, worst of all, cutesy. It’s as if Abrams and fellow executive producer Josh Reims spent an afternoon watching “Alias’’ and thinking about how to dumb it down and strip it of any emotional underpinnings.

The idea is that married couple Steven and Samantha Bloom, played by British actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Boris Kodjoe (“Soul Food’’), are retired CIA spies who now run a catering company in Los Angeles. When one of their old CIA pals goes missing, they’re recruited back into action by agency boss Carlton Shaw (Gerald McRaney). Cut to: The Blooms in Madrid. Cut to: The Blooms in Paris. Cut to: The Blooms jumping out of a plane. All of these location leaps also feature language and costume changes — as they did, with humor, in “Alias’’ — but it all feels like play-acting with nothing much at stake. The intrigue in “Undercovers’’ is as thick as a Saturday morning cartoon — I’m thinking Snidely Whiplash from “Dudley Do-Right,’’ or Boris and Natasha from “Bullwinkle.’’

The twist is that the return to spying has added a bit of a charge to the Blooms’ otherwise settled marriage. As they travel the world together, breaking into a bank, crashing a wedding, and surviving a car chase, they become more passionate toward each other than they were chopping vegetables. Because they’ve never worked together as spies, they learn more about each other, with both petty jealousy and respect popping to the surface. That Mbatha-Raw and Kodjoe are charming, and have a nice chemistry together, can’t quite save the marital material from coming off as corny and lacking in the wit that makes banter into a game of psychic ping-pong.

“Undercovers’’ is meant to be a fun, action-packed hour, a throwback to shows such as “Hart to Hart’’ that never tried to be anything more than simply fluffy. And maybe NBC will find viewers for whom that is enough. ABC failed to do so a few years back, with a similarly toned, quickly canceled series called “Thieves’’ with John Stamos and Melissa George. But the Abrams brand name may help “Undercovers’’ find a fan base. This is the kind of diversion that may sweep some happy viewers up in its weightlessness, while, to me, it feels more like a trip to nowhere.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit www.boston.com/ae/tv/blog/.

UNDERCOVERS

Starring: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Boris Kodjoe, Carter MacIntyre, Gerald McRaney

On: NBC, Channel 7

Time: Tonight, 8-9