Combine "Mission Impossible" with a pseudo-sensibility from John LeCarre for a TV series and what you get is bad LeCarre. But, as tonight's two-hour premiere of ABC's "Under Cover" shows, bad LeCarre is still better than most programs on prime time.
"Under Cover" comes from the same creative team -- John Sacret Young and William Broyles -- who came up with "China Beach." And, after tonight's debut at 9 o'clock on Channel 13 (WJZ), "Under Cover" replace "China Beach" on ABC's schedule, running Saturdays at 9 p.m.
Though the name is never mentioned, this is a series about the CIA. As in LeCarre, Broyles and Young try to show that these spies are not James Bond characters -- invincible men representing the forces of good against the agents of evil. Instead, they exhibit all the flaws and succumb to all the pressures that are present in any group of people as they exist in a world of shifting allegiances and murky morality.
But the team of agents assembled in "Under Cover" looks too much like the contrived mix of personalities and skills of a "Mission Impossible."
At the center is Dylan Del'Amico, played by a somewhat miscasAnthony Denison, whose idyllic marriage to a former top agent, Kate, played by Linda Purl, is strained by his inability to give up life in the field. Dylan's team is headed by the cool experience of veteran Stuart Merriman, played by Josef Summer. Other members include John Rhys-Davies' weapons expert and the computer whiz played by John Slattery. Needless to say, each of their skills will be indispensable at crucial moments.
Tonight's plot focuses on shifting alliances within the SovieUnion, and within what is called The Company, where the fight is between the old-timers who believe there is no substitute for the human element in intelligence work and those who believe times have changed and that technology should be the primary tool in this arena.
Since people generally come across better on film than surveillance satellites and computers, it's no surprise which side of that argument our heroes are on.
Complicating matters further is a LeCarre-type alliance Dylamade a decade ago in Iran with a Soviet agent, bringing Dylan under suspicion for being a double agent when he shows up on some FBI photos.
These two hours are nicely structured and plotted, but much of that good work is destroyed in a melodramatic climactic set piece that comes across as totally unrealistic and far less sophisticated than what has gone before as it finally comes down to a shootout that could have come out of "Gunsmoke."
Still, with the "China Beach" team behind it, and with the fertile area of the American intelligence apparatus struggling to find its role in the new world order, "Under Cover" has the potential to be a thinking person's action adventure series.
"Under Cover" *** A new series focusing on a group of American intelligence agents.
CAST: Anthony Denison, Linda Purl
TIME: Tonight at 9 o'clock, then Saturdays at 9 p.m.
, CHANNEL: ABC Channel 13 (WJZ)