'Undercovers' colorful mission: Change US TV

Associated Press | 9/28/2010, 8:42 p.m.
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.”