If the title hadn’t already been used, this new series could have been called Family of Spies. In Under Cover Anthony John Denison (Crime Story, Wiseguy) and Linda Purl (Matlock) work for the National Intelligence Agency, an organization strikingly similar to the CIA. They’re also husband and wife and the parents of three children. Denison and Purl raise their kids in a cozy suburban home — except when the couple is on assignment in places like Iran or Lebanon or Cambodia. There, they’re likely to be shot at or tortured; back at home, their worst torture is having to watch their teenage daughter (Arlene Taylor) kiss scruffy-looking boys.
Under Cover is the second series brought to you by executive producers William Broyles Jr. and John Sacret Young; in fact, Under Cover replaces the duo’s first, China Beach, in the ABC Saturday-night lineup. Both Beach and Under Cover attempt to bring a new seriousness to prime-time drama. In addition to offering complex story lines, Broyles and Young have tried to move beyond TV’s previous standard of excellence — Steven Bochco’s Hill Street Blues — by rejecting the breezy cynicism and reflexive wisecracking that characterized that pervasively influential, brilliant, yet mannered series.
Then too, Broyles and Young are trying something really new. Under Cover is a unique combination of family drama and the action-adventure genre. The show’s two-hour pilot, which aired earlier this month, included jazzy chase scenes in which Denison and his NIA partner, John Rhys-Davies (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade), escaped from KGB spies in late-1970s Iran. That show also contained quiet, beautifully performed love scenes between Denison and Purl-glimpses into the pleasures of married life that rarely appear on television.
All that said, Under Cover doesn’t really work so far. It shares a major flaw with China Beach: In trying for a hardboiled tone, the writers have come up with dialogue that’s frequently clichéd and self-important (”The war never ends,” Purl says to Denison. ”You just have to choose your battles ”). Even worse, Under Cover’s shifts between cheerful domestic life and overseas agenting are often awkward and jarring.
But most important, Under Cover seems to be avoiding what could be the most interesting aspect of a weekly drama based on the CIA: What are the show’s politics? By making these agents heroic and sympathetic, the series implicitly endorses their covert actions. By far the most sympathetic secondary character in the series is the charming, erudite NIA section chief, played by Josef Sommer, and NIA headquarters is depicted as the usual TV workplace: a hotbed of office sarcasm and camaraderie. Making spies both human and mundane will bother few viewers as long as the plots are what they’ve been so far — missions with unassailable motives, such as trying to prevent an assassination attempt on a Soviet leader. Who’s going to argue with that, aside from a few old Cold Warriors?
But the CIA has had a lot of controversial involvements with foreign governments over the years. Denison’s character began his career with ”the Company” during the Vietnam War, so Broyles and Young have two decades of complicated hugger-mugger to fool around with. Given the show’s regular use of flashbacks, it’s conceivable that in the weeks to come we could see Denison and Purl busy in Cuba, Nicaragua, and all sorts of other hot spots. Will Broyles and Young push their show this far? Will ABC let them? This could prove to be a better cliffhanger than ”Who killed Laura Palmer?” B