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‘Undercovers’ colorful mission: Change US TV

‘Undercovers’ colorful mission: Change US TV
Boris Kodjoe and Gugu Mbatha-Raw star as husband and wife spies on NBC’s “Undercover.” The program airs on Wednesday evenings at 8 p.m.

LOS ANGELES, California — Steven and Samantha Bloom are an appealing couple whose international spy capers on NBC’s “Undercovers” promise to be slick, sexy and fun, the kind of escapist fare that fills many an hour of TV.

But the new show’s intrigue comes from its casting along with its plots: German actor Boris Kodjoe and British-born Gugu Mbatha-Raw are the stars in charge of making this romp work, and both are black.

It is a persistent rarity in TV to have black leads outside of a “Grey’s Anatomy”-style ensemble, and “Undercovers” is rarer still because it is not an African American sitcom or a black-oriented drama fraught with social issues or family pathos.

This time around, two stunning, accomplished and happily wed black characters just get to have fun.

“It’s huge progress,” said writer and filmmaker John Ridley (“Three Kings,” “Third Watch”). “As a person of color I love to see issue-oriented stuff, but at the same time, it’s great to have two black people doing what two white people would do on any TV show.”

Kodjoe, whose credits include the new movie “Resident Evil: Afterlife” and TV’s “Soul Food,” is glad to be part of a breakthrough for U.S. television in general and the network in particular.

NBC, which pioneered the first network drama series starring an African American, “I Spy” with Bill Cosby in 1965, got a tongue-lashing this year from a California congresswoman for its lack of diversity. The network and parent company NBC Universal are under scrutiny as Comcast Corp. seeks regulatory approval to buy a majority stake in NBC Universal.

“It’s quite a proud moment,” Kodjoe said of “Undercovers.” He calls it “refreshing” for a show to tell lighthearted stories about a couple and their adventures that have “nothing to do with them being black.”

The decision to broaden the casting net beyond white actors resulted from the inclination and clout of J.J. Abrams, whose heavyweight credits include “Lost” and “Alias,” and fellow producer Josh Reims (“Brothers and Sisters”).

“We didn’t want to do a show that looks like 10 other shows on TV. … We just wanted to do something that felt fresh,” Reims said. Various actors were considered, but “we thought if we could cast two black actors it would be great.”

There was no resistance, only encouragement, from the network and the studio, he said.

In the end, Reims said, the best choices proved to be Kodjoe, 37, and Mbatha-Raw, 27, a stage-trained actress who starred on Broadway with Jude Law in “Hamlet,” on TV in “Doctor Who” and is in a coming Tom Hanks film, “Larry Crowne.”

Mbatha-Raw, who like Kodjoe employs an impeccable American accent in “Undercovers,” was unaware that black actors faced long odds for certain U.S. television roles. Her experience in Britain has been different.

“To be honest, I’ve been really blessed to play ethnically specific and nonethnically specific roles” back home, she said, both on the stage and TV. “I think there’s a different cultural legacy in the U.K. than in the United States.”

As for the NBC series, “It’s nice that it’s groundbreaking, but it shouldn’t be in this day and age,” she says.

Kodjoe agrees.

The entertainment industry needs to “make choices that are creative and real and diverse” and stop following tired paths that ignore diversity, he said. He was initially reluctant to read for “Undercovers” because he’d lost too many jobs when producers who praised his audition later informed him their show needed to go “in another direction.”

Invariably, that meant a white actor had won the role, Kodjoe said.

It is the sidekicks on “Undercovers” who are white, played by Carter MacIntyre and Ben Schwartz. Gerald McRaney is the Blooms’ boss, Carlton Shaw, who brings the couple back to work for the CIA five years after they quit to enjoy a routine married life and run a business (a catering company, which becomes their cover).

On another, more typical series, Shaw is just the kind of stern authority figure who would be played by a black actor to provide a dash of color — like Rocky Carroll as the agency director on “NCIS.”

The caper genre has found a comfortable home on TV, especially in recent years on cable, with USA Network’s “Burn Notice” and TNT’s “Leverage” in the pack that feature mostly white leads with a minority cast member or two.

Black-headlined fare of that and nearly every other stripe has long been a tough sell on TV.

Acclaimed actor James Earl Jones has been in several short-lived series, most notably the 1995 family drama “Under One Roof.”

“Snoops,” a detective series starring Tim Reid (“WKRP in Cincinnati”) and real-life wife Daphne Maxwell Reid, debuted in fall 1989 and was gone after just a few months. Reid’s critically praised “Frank’s Place” (1988) fared no better.

Other tries included “Get Christie Love,” starring Teresa Graves as a sexy detective, which aired from September 1974 to July 1975. “Shaft,” with Richard Roundtree in his big-screen detective role, lasted less than a year in the mid-1970s.

This time around, will viewers dig “Undercovers”?

A long-standing rule in series development is to avoid making a program “exclusionary,” said former TV executive and historian Tim Brooks (co-author of “The Complete Directory to Primetime Network and Cable TV Shows”).

“When you have a program almost entirely in a black setting, white viewers feel that’s not their world,” Brooks said. In focus group testing, white viewers may not “say it in so many words, but they just can’t relate it to their lives.”

There’s typically an exemption for sitcoms, which can draw a multiracial audience with all-black casts (examples abound, ranging from “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” to Cosby’s comedies). But dramas about relationships hit closer to home, Brooks said.

Filmmaker Ridley doesn’t buy that thinking. Largely white Hollywood decision-makers simply are drawn to projects and characters they are familiar with, he contends, and it takes an influential producer such as Abrams to see the need for change and force it.

And, Kodjoe notes, do it well.

“Josh Reims and J.J. Abrams are genius writers, and that’s what it comes down to. The rest is really up to the audience,” he said.

Associated Press