*Nearly two years after America elected its first black president, NBC will present network television’s first prime time drama featuring two black actors in the lead.
Boris Kodjoe and Gugu Mbatha-Raw make history as married spies in the J.J. Abrams series “Undercovers,” billed as a “sexy, fun, action-packed spy drama” in the vein of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s “Mr & Mrs. Smith.”
The premise: Steven and Samantha Bloom own a catering business, but are secretly CIA operatives whose undercover work takes them to exotic places around the world. [See full-length trailer below.]
The network does not appear to be milking the casting to promote the show, and producers actually downplayed the race of its leads during a panel at a TV critics meeting last month. Co-creator Josh Reims told reporters that he and Abrams weren’t necessarily looking to make history.
“When we finished the script and went into the casting process, we started out by saying, ‘Let’s just see every possible incarnation of a person. We don’t want to see the same people we’ve seen on TV 10 million times because it will look like many other shows that are on TV, which are perfectly good, but we want it to look different,'” said Reims.
Reims said they auditioned “a bunch of people” before Boris and Gugu came in late in the game and just killed it.
“We didn’t go out of our way to say we’re hiring two black people to be the leads of the show, but we certainly did not ignore the fact that it would be great if we could do that and if we found actors who were great enough,” he added.
Kodjoe, an actor of German and Ghanaian heritage, is certainly aware of the show’s pioneering casting and is not afraid to point it out.
“I don’t know if you want to call it revolutionary, but it’s not the norm,” he says of the show’s two black leads, “although it should be the norm because that’s what the world looks like. The world is diverse, and we come in all kinds of different shapes, sizes, and shades.
“It is important that we get a chance to be trailblazers or door openers or whatever you want to call it. On the other hand, let’s keep in mind or let’s inspire people to regard it as normal so that more and more people don’t consider it taking a chance, but just being creative.”
Reims admits that the writer’s room at “Undercovers” is not as groundbreaking as the series itself when it comes to people of color; only two black scribes are on staff.
“I would be lying if I said I didn’t notice that they were black when I was hiring them,” said Reims. “I certainly went out of my way to interview people who are black and people who are not. And we felt, just as we felt when we were casting, that it’s not something we can ignore, that we have two black leads. Obviously, I’m not black. J.J. is even less black than I am.”
That reality, says Reims, underscored the importance of having a black perspective on the writing staff. Reims says he and J.J. are not expecting their two writers of color to literally speak for the whole race – as is often the case in writers’ rooms with just one or two black people in the mix.
“I was on a show a long time ago called ‘Chicago Hope,’ and we had a couple of doctors on the show who were black,” says Reims. “And we had a writer who was black, and it used to be, he would get annoyed because we would be like, ‘OK, so you are the black writer. So what would they say?’ which was ridiculous. And so, that’s obviously not why we have these writers. I have the writers because they are both really good writers, but if they can inform anything that I can’t inform, then that’s great.”
The jury is still out on whether any of these writers can keep viewers tuning in beyond the Sept. 22, 8 p.m. season premiere. Reims says despite the fate of “Undercovers” in terms of Nielsen ratings, the casting may have already left its mark for seasons to come.
“Yes, we all wish it wasn’t such a big deal at this point in time that there are two black characters who are the leads on a major TV show on a major network, but unfortunately that’s the way it is right now,” says Reims. “And even since the casting of this show was announced, we’ve seen other shows have cast black leads that maybe, who knows, wouldn’t have happened.”
Watch full-length trailer of “Undercovers” below.