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'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...
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.

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