The outdoor cafe on a quiet street in "Florence, Italy" looked inviting with its checkerboard tablecloths and centerpieces, but the group of spies huddled in an alley across the street was preoccupied with other concerns, such as locating a biological weapon and saving the world.
Secret agents Steven Bloom and his wife, Samantha, along with their nerdy colleague Bill Hoyt, were animatedly discussing the deadly case. All were fashionably dressed, at odds with the messiness of the alley.
But unfortunately, make-believe espionage — in this case, a scene from the new NBC series "Undercovers" being filmed on the backlot of Burbank-based Warner Bros. Studios — had to compete with the noise of real life. Airplanes, helicopters and a buzz saw from a nearby location kept interrupting the flow of the scene.
"Is there also a jackhammer around we can add?" grumbled Gerald McRaney, who plays CIA honcho Carlton Shaw. After chuckling, members of the cast and crew reset for another take.
"Undercovers" is one of the fall's more high-profile offerings, largely because of the involvement of marquee producer-director J.J. Abrams, the powerhouse behind " Alias," "Lost" and "Fringe." Abrams, who directed the big-screen revamp of "Star Trek" and is also in charge of the latest entries in the "Mission: Impossible" movie franchise, cowrote and directed the pilot for the series, and is an executive producer.
The series marks Abrams' latest foray into the James Bond-style international spy genre. As with "Alias," the action will take place all over the world, although production will mostly take place in Los Angeles. Boris Kodjoe ("Soul Food," "Madea's Family Reunion") and Gugu Mbatha-Raw ( "Doctor Who") star as Steven and Samantha, the Blooms, who abandoned their respective stints as top-notch spy operatives after their wedding to run a catering business. Shaw persuades the couple to resume their espionage careers while juggling their food enterprise. Ben Schwartz ("Parks and Recreation") plays nerdy field agent Hoyt.
But the anticipation about the Abrams brand has been almost overtaken by the buzz over Kodjoe and Mbutha-Raw, who are black. The casting has brought the show more scrutiny, since having two minority actors in lead roles in a drama is a rarity on primetime network television.
The race issue has brought an edgier perspective to the series, which is designed to be light, fun and, most important, uncomplicated. The approach is almost retro — you won't find any vanishing islands, flash-forwards or Rambaldi artifacts here. "This is a genre I love, and the idea was to do a show that was a lark, good comfort food," said Abrams. "It's sort of a response to the complexity and often hard-to-follow storylines of 'Lost' and 'Alias.' It's also a kind of throwback series in terms of tone and mythology."
Glamour is also a key element. With their runway model physiques and magazine-cover-ready glows, Kodjoe and Mbutha-Raw register as among the most photogenic couples on television. "Both of them are specimens of physical perfection," Abrams said. "But it would be unfair to say that's all they are. They are talented and engaging performers."
The hubbub over the stars indicates how NBC, CBS, ABC and Fox are still struggling with adding meaningful diversity to prime time, exactly 10 years after those networks pledged to increase multiculturalism in front of and behind the camera. Though network comedies have featured performers of color in leading roles, minorities are still largely shut out of lead or primary roles in dramas. That situation is particularly glaring at CBS and Fox this season, where none of the new shows on those networks' fall schedules have people of color in leading or major roles.
Kodjoe has been taken aback by questions he's received by some in the African American media who are less than pleased by the fact that Kodjoe and Mbatha-Raw are both from Europe (he is German-born, she is from Britain), suggesting that American blacks should be in the leads. "That's just pretty bizarre," Kodjoe said. "There are those that feel this is some kind of compromise. It just shows that you just aren't going to make everybody happy."
Making the spotlight on the series even hotter is NBC's embarrassment following extensive criticism by Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), who blasted NBC Universal chief Jeff Zucker earlier this year for what she called the lack of African Americans in front of and behind the camera at that network. The criticism was tied to NBC Universal's proposed merger with cable giant Comcast.