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Fall '01: "UC: Undercover"

You've just had a tough day -- the latest in a three-week string of lousy days. The daily news alternates between depressing and terrifying, with a dash of heartbreak thrown in for variety's sake. The economy is gagging, everyone's feeling insecure, and the future we used to look forward to seems just a little less certain now.

So I'm sure you're just absolutely looking forward to a TV show that features shadowy federal agents, brutally thuggish villains and a hearty helping of mayhem and terror served up amid a hail of bullets.

No? Really? Then NBC is going to be really disappointed with you.

It's hard not to feel sorry, then, for the producers of UC: Undercover. All they wanted to do was create an escapist thriller featuring clichéd cops and excessive gunplay. It's not their fault that everything went to hell on September 11. Now, instead of just creating a lousy show, they're responsible for creating a lousy show that's about as enjoyable to watch in this day and age as a "Jaws" marathon right before you hit the water.

UC: Undercover focuses on an undercover investigative unit connected in some way with the U.S. Department of Justice as it attempts to take down baddies and thwart evil-doers in an unnamed Pacific Northwest city. Judging by the number of maple leaf flags flying proudly in the background, my guess is Vancouver. What exactly an elite U.S. government investigative unit is doing skulking around the mean streets of British Columbia, I have no idea. Perhaps it's a cross-jurisdictional thing with the Mounties.

The cops of UC: Undercover spend much of their time, as the title suggests, undercover. And there, the show makes its fatal mistake -- other than, you know, having the bad luck to be a violent shoot-'em-up hour of idiocy that premiered right after a horrific terrorist attack.

I can accept many things when I sit down to watch television. Things that fly in the face of all logic. A Justice Department strike force pretending that downtown Vancouver is, in fact, Seattle? I'll buy it. Computer hackers that can pound away furiously on a laptop and immediately summon up a database of every bank in the downtown area? Hey, it could happen. Vicious henchmen named Headache? I can hear that name and not even feel like giggling.

But one thing that I cannot accept -- one casting decision that simply doesn't hold water -- is Jon Seda playing an expert undercover agent. As an actor, Seda seems to have trouble mastering one identity; I'm supposed to believe he's capable of pulling off multiple ones?

(Let the record show that I waited until the eighth paragraph before getting in the first of what promises to be many cruel laughs at Jon Seda's expense. Those of you who had "eight" in the TeeVee office pool should now collect your bets.)

Lest this come across as mean-spirited mewing from someone who thinks Jon Seda could get out-acted by tree bark -- not an entirely unreasonable thesis, I might add -- it looks like the UC: Undercover creative team isn't entirely sure that Seda is up to the task of playing a master of disguise. Consider that in the premiere episode, when co-star Vera Farmiga went undercover, she donned a frizzy wig and sported a mostly convincing British accent. And Seda's disguise? Changing his last name from Shaw to Kowalski.

Perhaps in future episodes he can graduate to monocles, dueling scars and orange fright wigs.

In the pilot episode, Grant Show played the head of the investigative team. He spent most of the hour looking like he would much rather be back poolside at Melrose Place rubbing cocoa oil on Daphne Zuniga. Or on Andrew Shue, for that matter.

When not visibly reassessing his career decisions, Show is busy speaking forcefully and glowering and generally acting Very Serious. "This my unit," Show snarls at his bald and therefore dim-witted superior. "When you send out my unit, we do things my way."

"Grant Show seems very protective about his unit," my wife said, which I mention only because this witticism -- not exactly up to the Algonquin Round Table standards normally in use in the Michaels home -- may have been my one moment of enjoyment during the entire hour I watched UC: Undercover.

Show and his band of undercover experts -- and Jon Seda -- are looking to bring down chief baddie William Forsythe. Chief among his crimes is a tendency to speak in tortured metaphors and aimless allegories.

"Why does a wolf howl, Jake?" Forsythe asks Seda for no good reason at some point. "He howls because he's lonely. He wants other wolves around." For once, Seda's blank deer-in-the-headlights stare fits the scene perfectly.

For just a moment at the end of the premiere, UC: Undercover looked like it could improve dramatically. Hired goons were marching toward Jon Seda's apartment, automatic weaponry in hand, ready to fill him full of holes. And NBC's voice-over announcer promised that next week, the UC: Undercover team would "lose one of their own." But, given Grant Show's widely reported decision to live off Melrose Place residual checks rather than seek continued employment with UC: Undercover, it seems unlikely that the Seda character will be joining the Choir Invisible come this Sunday.

All of this -- the goofy dialogue, the subject matter made irrelevant by current events, the inextinguishable presence of Jon Seda -- would be hard enough to overcome. But UC: Undercover doesn't help its cause by cribbing from every TV series and movie ever made about undercover agents. The hardheaded commanding officer, the mob boss betrayed by an informant who was like a son to him, the obligatory "Shoot this guy to prove that you're one of us" scene -- it's all there, only blurry and out-of-focus like a Xerox of a Xerox of a Xerox. The climactic showdown in the first episode -- a bank robbery that goes horribly wrong resulting in a mayhem-filled shootout on the streets of a major metropolis -- was practically a shot-for-shot swipe of the movie "Heat," as I'm sure Michael Mann and his army of attorneys will be glad to point out.

On the plus side for UC: Undercover's, though, Forsythe's character does mumble a lot, so it's at least easy to see why he and Jon Seda would get along so well.

But other than that, UC: Undercover is mostly stupid and loud. If that sounds like a wise way to invest an hour of your life each week, more power to you. Me, I watch TV in part to escape the troubles of the day, and substituting real-life horror and violence with cartoonish variations of the same doesn't seem like a very good swap to me. UC: Undercover would be pretty much unwatchable under the best of circumstances -- these days, it's entirely that way.


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