LOS ANGELES What "Under Cover" needs is less action-adventure and more characterization. Less "MacGyver" and more of the psychological insight found in last year's PBS production of Len Deighton's "Game, Set, Match" could make for a very strong show.
The new ABC series, which premieres at 9 tonight on WJZ-TV (Channel 13), has all kinds of promise.
It is written and produced by William Broyles Jr. and John Sacret Young, the team that created "China Beach." It has four strong lead actors in Linda Purl, Anthony John Denison, John Rhys-Davies and Josef Sommer. It is built around an interesting concept: the real lives of people who work for the Central Intelligence Agency.
The big problems in tonight's two-hour pilot are unevenness and implausibility. "Under Cover" is at its worst when it goes for "Mission Impossible" and comes up somewhere around "MacGyver" on the tick-tick-tick suspense scale.
The show is about "National Intelligence Agent" Dylan Del'Amico (Denison) coming in from the cold. Del'Amico takes a desk job in Washington so that he can spend more time with his family. It is going to take him a while to decompress and adjust to the new wave of younger NIA agents who see him as an over-the-hill cowboy who spent his life playing spy games. The name of the new game at NIA headquarters is computers.
Del'Amico has some help in adjusting. His wife, Kate (Purl), was also an agent. She has resigned, though, to raise her two children and one stepchild from Del'Amico's first marriage.
So far, so good. The stuff at home -- him playing daddy at a Little League game -- and the stuff at the office -- a young turk trying to bury him and his best friend, Flynn (Rhys-Davies) -- plays nicely.
But it's far too brief. And, before we can really connect with the characters, Broyles has everybody off breaking up a KGB assassination plot in Yalta.
By the time Kate bundles the kids off to a friend and dons a black turtleneck and tights to help foil the plot, some viewers may wonder whether they are watching a serious show or an episode of "Scarecrow and Mrs. King" gone haywire.
"Under Cover" is too complicated to be judged on one installment. When it's smart -- as in the scene where Flynn, Dylan and Kate sing "Stand By Me" -- it's very smart. When it's dumb -- as when Kate climbs along the ledge of a building in Yalta to bug the hotel room of the bad guys -- it's very dumb.
Network pilots are often more compromise and revision than inspiration. Let's hope that "Under Cover" takes the right road when it finds its stride.