Monday, NBC announced that it was picking up the new J.J.Abrams series ‘Undercovers.’ The premise screams potential hit: a husband and wife who have retired from the CIA and launched a catering company find themselves pulled back into the world of international espionage when a colleague disappears. To their surprise, fighting the bad guys reignites the spark in their marriage. For the struggling network, picking up a show from the man behind ‘Lost,’ ‘Alias‘ and ‘Fringe’ is a no brainer. It’s ‘Mr. and Mrs. Smith‘ meets ‘Hart to Hart’ with Abrams’ signature blend of action, suspense and humor. Said NBC Entertainment President Angela Bromstead, “Having J.J. on our creative team is a great reason for celebration. In Undercovers, he’s found a breakout couple that is rich in character and brimming with romance and action. We feel he’s found the perfect cast.”
Bromstead did not mention what is groundbreaking about the cast. Both of the leads are African American. The married spies are played by hotties Boris Kodjoe (‘Soul Food‘) and Gugu Mbatha-Raw (‘Doctor Who‘). These actors have a following that will ensure both hard core sci fi fans and male eye candy aficionados will tune in for the premiere. But there were probably a few awkward conversations during the development process about whether the duo had enough “mainstream” appeal. NBC and Abrams decision to cast Kodjoe and Mbatha-Raw in a high profile, big budget series with a premise that has absolutely nothing to do with ethnicity is commendable. But the television industry should be embarrassed that it is so rare in 2010.
Though virtually every ensemble drama has minority characters, and African Americans are allowed to be half of a buddy duo (see ‘Psych’ and ‘NCIS: Los Angeles’), this is the first time African Americans have been the true, sole protagonists of a broadcast network drama since Taye Diggs starred in ABC’s ‘Day Break‘ in the 2006-07 season.
There have been numerous articles about how television has gotten less diverse since ‘The Cosby Show‘ and ‘A Different World’ ruled the airwaves during the 1980s. Fox, the WB, the UPN and The CW all launched with a lot of minority led sitcoms, then canceled them once the networks built up an audience. Even cable shows that feature predominantly minority casts tend to be lower profile. Even ‘The Wire,’ which many regard as the best television’s series of all time, never won Emmys in any major categories. ‘Soul Food’ and ‘Lincoln Heights’ got little media attention outside of African American oriented publications, though they did well enough in the ratings to air for multiple seasons. Somehow the prevailing wisdom became that series starring African Americans, particularly if they were dramas, were not appealing to a wider audience. When ‘Day Break’ failed, due largely to a flawed, repetitive ‘Groundhog Day’-style premise that was not sustainable over more than a few episodes, the conclusion seemed to be that the casting was the problem. Even the success of dramedy ‘Ugly Betty‘ did not lead to more dramas starring minorities. There was a glass ceiling, with plenty of juicy supporting roles going to African Americans, but never the lead. And as awesome as Bailey is, it’s still ‘Grey’s Anatomy.’
This season, it seems that networks have realized both that America is not as lily white as a ‘Friends’ rerun and that the nation that elected an African American president will tune in to a show about African Americans. The other pilot that has been unofficially granted an early pick up is the CW’s ‘Nikita,’ which stars Vietnamese/Irish actress Maggie Q, who has spent the bulk of her career starring in Chinese language films in Hong Kong. In the original ‘La Femme Nikita’ series on USA, Nikita was played by the ultra WASP-y Peta Wilson. The last time an Asian played the title role on a network television series was the Margaret Cho sit-com ‘All American Girl’ in the early1990s.
It's too soon to say that television is entering a new era where actors of all ethnicities will have the opportunity to become the next Jon Hamm. 'Undercovers' and 'Nikita' may well be the only minority lead shows on network television this fall. But it's encouraging that, while the vast majority of pilots under consideration are still more variations on the crime procedural, at least the casting may put a new spin on some unoriginal premises.