NBC finally gave up and canceled Undercovers. This is not a surprise. (When an NBC show is so low-rated that it makes Chuck seem secure by comparison, you know it’s got problems.) It’s a little morbid to analyze the season in terms of which shows have bombed the worst, but I think that although Lone Star and My Generation flamed out more spectacularly, Undercovers may be the biggest failure. Lone Star was considered something of a risk by its network, because of its anti-hero lead and the bigamy angle. It was the kind of show that could, if things break right, become popular — meaning that it was a risk worth taking as the network saw it — but it was also the kind of show whose subject matter could just turn people off. The network didn’t expect it to fail; otherwise it wouldn’t have been on. But they felt they were taking at least a bit of a chance. Same with the slightly unconventional approach of My Generation; it wasn’t a big risk, but it was a small risk.
Undercovers, on the other hand, was not considered a risky show by anyone who made it or commissioned it. That’s not to say anyone thought it was guaranteed to succeed; guaranteed success doesn’t exist any more than guaranteed failure. But it was supposed to be a relatively low-risk project that would provide comfortable entertainment and solid ratings for a network that really needed a hit. Instead it was almost as unpopular as Lone Star, despite doing almost nothing ambitious. When an ambitious show bombs, at least the network and the producers can reassure themselves that they tried something different and the audience didn’t want it. An unambitious bomb has no such excuse. It’s just a show that existed to entertain and didn’t entertain enough.
The reason why Undercovers was so dull may be glimpsed in Nikki Finke’s talk with an anonymous staffer on the show. He or she says this:
Mostly, what was meant to be a throwback lark of a show felt trivial to people. It felt flimsy and not compelling, partially because it was designed as a stand alone, non serialized show. Perhaps the stories lacked deeper interest and urgency. We tried to embrace a familiarity of form, but the public obviously didn’t want something so familiar.
Coming from a team that mostly does complicated serial adventures, Undercovers seems to have been an attempt to do something easy and fun and “familiar.” But, as I’ve said many times in one form or another, a non-serialized show isn’t easier than a serialized one; it is, if anything, harder. As a commenter on that article points out, the show didn’t need a mythology, it needed high stakes for the weekly adventures, but instead everything just seemed pointless. This is something that plagues a number of light dramas, where the writers often don’t have the patience — or the skill — to construct stories that make you care how the characters are going to get out of the trap, and override our knowledge that they’re going to survive.
Chuck has this problem too, often coming up with uncompelling or perfunctory escapes and action beats. But that show gets by on charm, and the writers are clearly having fun. The sense that the writers on Undercovers weren’t really having fun, and condescended to the format, was hard to escape. It’s a bit like the obvious condescention the team displayed before Fringe began, talking as though the standalone mystery format was just a way to get the show on the air and that they clearly considered the ongoing myth stuff to be higher art. Sure enough, Fringe got better as it got more mythology-heavy, because that’s where the writers’ interests really lay. But the lack of love for the standalone format seems to have caught up with Abrams and company in Undercovers; if the writers of this kind of show aren’t good at standalones, it’s never going to work.
It may also have been mistaken to think that a light action show was the kind of thing needed to deliver a hit. Maybe it’s just because the form hasn’t been done particularly well in recent years, but it certainly does seem to have become a niche cable format, owned by USA and TNT. On the big networks, light action is probably less “mainstream” than mystery shows with relatively little action (Castle, Bones, almost everything on CBS). Chuck, Undercovers and The Good Guys and Human Target are a small sample size, and an A-Team type of action show could come along and revive the genre, but at the moment it’s not really a mainstream genre; it’s a niche genre that sounds like it should be mainstream because it’s light and fun. Dour and dark may actually have a better chance of mass popularity, at least in drama, than light and fun.
The one sad thing about Undercovers‘ failure is that it leaves U.S. TV once again with a really depressing lack of African-American leads. I’m afraid that networks may take this as a sign that audiences won’t watch a drama with black stars. I think this would be a pretty silly thing to believe, given that there are other, more compelling explanations: no one had heard of these two stars, the network expected J.J. Abrams’ star power to make up for that, and his name doesn’t actually carry that much weight with viewers. But just because something is probably wrong, that won’t stop network executives from believing it.