Image Credit: Art Streiber/NBCA new drama about sexy spies from J.J. Abrams, the creator of Alias? That would seem to have “HIT” written all over it. And so it went that NBC’s Undercovers arrived this fall as one of the season’s most promising new shows. But even with an energetic pilot helmed by Abrams himself, appealing and strikingly attractive actors in the lead roles, and an undemanding, easy-breezy approach to storytelling, the newfangled Hart to Hart failed to stir any true passion among TV viewers. It bowed to weak numbers (8.6 million), and only grew weaker as the weeks progressed (Wednesday’s episode: 5.8 million). Why did Undercovers go under? Here are three reasons:
It wasn’t Alias-y enough for J.J. Abrams fans.
Undercovers was engineered for a marketplace that was seemingly weary of the kind of shows that Abrams’ has been linked to over the past several years—ambitious, serialized sagas with heady, trippy ideas and lots of backstory mythology for the viewer to recall and track. The gradual decline over time of Lost as well as the inability of shows like Fringe to consistently click with the masses would seem to be proof that Undercovers might benefit from an alternative creative approach. The good news: Viewers got the message that Undercovers was a different kind of Abrams spy-fi series. The bad news is that the viewers who actually liked the other kind of Abrams spy-fi series all went: “Okay, then. Not for me.”
Where was the urgency?
In trying to make a show that was decidedly fun and accessible by today’s TV marketplace standards, NBC wound up with the show that felt like another Chuck, also a geek-lite spy-fi romp that radiates little or no sense of gottawatchitnow. (Although Chuck has something going for it that Undercovers never had: It has been — and remains — something of a media darling. Seriously, I think that show owes a huge debt to Michael Ausiello alone. And Subway.) NBC’s other major geek-friendly new drama, The Event, is also currently struggling for viewership — but it did launch to much stronger numbers, because it positioned itself as… well, an event. As something that must be watched, because everyone will be talking about it the next day and obsessing about it for weeks. The Event hasn’t lived up to that hype, but it certainly proved the value of hype. By contrast, Undercovers seemed like a take it-or-leave it proposition — and alas, most viewers left it alone… or just left.
The leads lacked star power.
Undercovers focused on Steven and Samantha Bloom, married ex-spies who run an L.A. catering business who get sucked back into the cloak and dagger life. It certainly isn’t an uncommercial concept. After all, Brad Pitt an Angelina Jolie scored one of the biggest hits of their respective careers with a very similar premise, the 2005 smash Mr. and Mrs. Smith, about unhappily married secret agent assassins. But did the premise flatter the stars, or did the stars flatter the premise? Obviously, it was the latter (enhanced, of course, by the hot sauce of all that tabloid notoriety at the time), and I dare say Undercovers didn’t succeed because Abrams and Co. eschewed a proven formula and went unconventional, i.e. casting total unknowns that possessed zero celebrity baggage, interesting or otherwise. We say this with all due respect to Boris Kodjoe and Gugu Mbatha-Raw, both promising talents who will hopefully find great success in other projects, but one person’s “Fresh new faces are really exciting!” is another person’s “Who the hell are they and why should I care?” Bottom line: Undercovers needed to be a star vehicle for two sexy, established celebs with compelling career stories that could have enhanced their roles with irony and interest.
ADDITION AT 10 PM PST: I meant no offense to Chuck fans. I watch and enjoy the show myself–but not every week. And I never feel like I miss much when I miss a couple episodes at a time. It’s not a show I need to watch every week, because it doesn’t present itself like a show that must be watched every week. Regardless, one romantic spy-fi drama is enough; I don’t need another one–and apparently, neither does NBC. Also, my “three reasons Undercovers went under” focused on aspects and characteristics of the show that may have discouraged tune-in from the beginning. I chose not to discuss post-pilot creative choices that may have inspired viewers to stop watching each week because I have not seen every episode of Undercovers. Finally, there are many reasons for any show’s demise, and it’s easy to disagree on the ones which are most pertinent. Judging from your comments, Undercovers is no exception.
The question before you, PopWatchers: Did you watch Undercovers? If no — why not? If yes: What did you like about it, and what should it have done differently? Anything?