Spies Like Us!: The Racialicious Roundtable for Undercovers 1.1

Hosted By Arturo R. García

It’s the new show we’ve gotten the most review requests for. But did Undercovers live up to the hype and the hope? So far, yes to one, and maybe to the other.

We’d known going in that Boris Kodjoe and Gugu Mbatha-Raw would be headlining the show as married spies-turned-caterers Steven and Samantha Bloom, and that they’d get called back into action. What I wasn’t prepared for – and this tells you a lot about Hollywood -  was how … well-adjusted these characters would be thus far.

SPOILERS AHEAD

As we meet the Blooms, they’re bowls-deep in their latest event, but there’s no lingering edges to either of them, no attempt at pained-cool stoicism from Steven or anger-as-”intensity” from Samantha. Even as we’re shown and told that their marriage is starting to succumb to suburban complacency, there’s none of the accompanying sniping or side-eyeing usually associated with a Union On The Rocks.

Of course, it’s ridiculous to see the Blooms slip back into the field as easily as Samantha slips into (and out of) an impressive collection of evening wear. But is the refreshing sight of a show that isn’t just anchored by a POC couple, but one that seemingly isn’t weighed down by neuroses or stereotypes worth giving it a pass? And perhaps more importantly, are we about to give this show the kiss of death? Read on as the Table dives in …

Well, if JJ’s gonna give us cheese, at least he put some relish on it, no?
Andrea: LOL See, I don’t think the show is cheesy.  Charmingly silly and sweet, as in “Awww! What a cute cis heterosexual middle-class Black couple who really seem to love and respect each other!”  If you want cheesy, watch Bill and Sookie on True Blood or even Michael and Fiona on Burn Notice. Undercovers almost suffers from Teh Cutes, it’s so charming.  Considering the internecine pit-bull fights between Black women and Black men that pop culture seems to relish in showing and perpetuating, this show is an armistice in the quest showing Black-on-Black love in the media.
Mahsino: Come on Andrea, this show should have come with a warning the lactose intolerant because this show it was that effing cheesy, as evidenced by the awful stunt fighting and exaggerated Batman like punch sound effects. But it would have been cheesy if it were played by actors of any race, so yay for that. And Billkie was rage inducing, not cute. I guess it’s a personal preference, but if I’m going to watch a cheesy show I want it with extra camp (see Betty, Ugly).
Andrea: Love your snark, Mahsino, but I need you to go back and read what I wrote. I said nothing about Bilkie being cute, but cheesy in that “identify with the cis hetero whiteness abuse-as-romance” sense that is constantly regurgitated in this culture, from romance novels to rom-coms.  I also rip into Bill and especially Sookie — and Bilkie — in the True Blood roundtables.  Cuteness don’t inspire me to rip it to shreds.  That’s why Undercovers doesn’t make me want to take a rapier to it.  If anything, I say put a glucose-intolerance label on it.
Mahsino: Ah, my fault, I saw Bill and Sookie near “Teh Cutes” and my mind went haywire, though I thought you were being sarcastic, the amount of times I’ve heard people say that in earnest made me extra snarky.
Diana: At first impression on the night it aired, notwithstanding my decades old crush on Boris, I thought it was BORING.  So after about 20 minutes, I decided to wash my ‘fro rather than continue watching.  Then for the sake of the round table, I watched it on Hulu on Saturday morning and managed to watch the whole thing.  I think the writers need to work on the dialogue which to me was sort of rote and uninteresting.  I also think I would be more interested in seeing them running their catering business rather than all the spy stuff.  Maybe if it was a little darker like Nikita I could get more into it. But I did like the couple–they do have a cheesey cuteness factor and I can’t be mad at black-on-black luuuuuv.
jen*: So, yes – plenty of cheese.  I don’t know how well a spy show can balance such saccharin dialogue.  Though I have to admit, I got the warm fuzzies just from watching a black couple be happy for an hour.  When does that happen on tv?

First victory for the show: the Blooms are actually nice people. Anybody else notice the welcome lack of “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” Brangelinangst?
Andrea: Ha! I think part of the Brangelinangst came from some real-life forces at work with Pitt and Joile, like the disintegration of Brad Pitt’s marriage to Jennifer Aniston, which always seemed to have a nasty racialized cast to me.  Now, unless some off-screen thang jumps off between Boris Kodjoe and Gugu Mbatha-Raw, we’re watching two actors who are playing a married couple with some chemistry and without the bitterness, which is also refreshing to see in the TV land of snippy married couples.  And, yes, they are That Couple some people want to move next door or invite to their dinner party or camping trip.  It’s as if Abrams and his crew are giving a pop-culture manners-and-mores on how “normal” Black couples and people are, like the Julia and Cosby Show of the 2K10s.
Mahsino: While I’m not a fan of nice on tv (it gets boring fast) I’ll take this “nice couple” act over the usual stereotypes just to have something different.
Diana: Mahsino, I think you hit it on the head.  They should have some conflict in the relationship that’s a little more than an ex-boyfriend and an agreement not to talk about it.
jen*: I’m thinking that maybe there’ll be something growing out of the fact that they haven’t talked about their past missions with each other.  The sweet thing can’t last unless they have something else wrinkling up the situation.  I have high hopes that this show will last, but I fear that it won’t unless they start throwing some serious stereotypes in.

O HAI MRS. BLOOM! Viva La (tastefully rendered) Male Gaze! … Ahem. This is officially the Sexpionage section.
Andrea: Oh wait, and Kodjoe top-half nekkid in a towel brushing his teeth wasn’t for all the man-loving peeps in the audience?  I think a whole swath of folks were saying, “O hai!”
Mahsino: I didn’t even notice he was half nekkid in the bathroom, I was too distracted by the catalog set design and the fact that they live in a house straight out of a Martha Stewart catalog. But then again, I was more appreciative in Kodjoe in a nicely tailored suit.
Diana: Sexpionage is my new favorite word. Half  nekkid Boris is great. Nekkid Boris on a platter would be mo’ better!
jen*: Word on the set design, Mahsino.  As I watched, everything was pretty.  The clothes [the white suit on Samantha was impeccable], the furniture/sets – I’m enjoying watching this just for the aesthetics.  (I kinda like Boris in a t-shirt. So I suppose we were all pleased.)

So, brass tacks time: how much life do you think this show’s got in it?
Andrea: The cynical part of me thinks the Blooms’ sweetness may have people used to snark and nasty in pop-culture coupledom bored or snarly enough to not support the show beyond this first season.  But Abrams seems to have a long lucky streak on long-running shows and reinvention.  And, if pop-culture analysts are right about people are looking for shows with “heart,” then this show may have a chance.  I’m just waiting for the comparisons of the Blooms to the Obamas.
Mahsino: I wouldn’t say I’d have trouble supporting this show sans Roundtable because I’m used to snark and nasty pop-culture, so much as it just reads as the same tired “happily ever after” romcom garbage I never could get behind. But I’m not holding out any hope for this show.
Diana: I’m not sure.  Something is missing.  It has to have appeal to a lot more people than those who love Boris and those who like seeing “usses” on tv.  We’ll see (seems to be my ongoing mantra).
jen*: I am also a “we’ll-see”-er.  Maybe we’ll get to more of the shows own brass tacks as the season progresses.  I’ll be watching.

Open Mic!
Andrea: I’m also waiting for the takedowns how the actors playing the Blooms aren’t really a “Black” couple because they have white parents, so they can’t be a “true” representation of Black-on-Black love.  As Chris Rock says, that train ain’t never late.
Mahsino: I love hate to be cynical, but I feel like NBC is trying to butter up Black follks so that when this fails and they go back to being all white they can say “we gave you Undercovers” sort of like they did with the Cosby show. I’m going to need to see a little more representation from other people of color before I start buying into the networks “More Colorful” tagline, even if it is now technically true. In any case, this show isn’t bad, it’s just not my thing.
Diana: Andrea–they are so Afro-European.  Can’t just have plain ole black folks being spies.  That leads me to one plot point that I thought was unrealistic and that is when they went to the hotel posing as IT folks.  Somehow, I just couldn’t believe that the IT people in Spain would be black.  The U.S. yes, but Madrid no.  [I know an African-American woman who lived in Spain and worked as a teacher and said that people were prone to stare.  But I don’t know what part of Spain she was in.]  Maybe I’m too cynical.
Andrea: Diana, all I can say about the Blooms being Afro-Europeans is, “So what?”  If I’m not mistaken, both Kodjoe and Mbatha-Raw are Afro-Europeans, Kodjoe hailing from Germany and Mbatha-Raw from the UK.  So, we know that such folks exist in the African Diaspora — and some, like Kodjoe, are part of Black communities in the US — so why not show them living/breathing/sexpionaging on TV?
jen*: I had to suspend disbelief watching Samantha launch a missile and hit her target, using her left arm, while driving.  Will everything they do come so easily packaged in a bow?  The Blooms actually remind me of Agatha Christie’s spy couple Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, just because they’re fun/cute and pretty squeaky clean – at least after the 1st ep.  I loved the Beresfords when I was 12 – the Blooms remind me of simpler times – with 21st c. gadgets.  But I don’t figure they’ll be able to maintain numbers without dirtying things up a bit.
Diana: Andrea, I was responding to your comment that their parents are white. I know they are German and British in real life and that’s what I think makes their casting a bit provocative in my book.  They are of the diaspora and they don’t carry the same legacy of American slavery. In fact, the show might be more interesting if they weren’t playing Americans.