A Meek CBS Spin on James Cameron’s Blockbuster  

If you love James Cameron’s 1994 smash True Lies — the effort to out-Bond the James Bond movies of that period remains evident in every tremendous action set-piece — it’s probably better not to think of CBS’ True Lies as having anything to do with it.

If you hate James Cameron’s 1994 smash True Lies — it’s creepy, misogynistic, xenophobic and the pacing dies for an hour in the middle — it’s probably better not to think of CBS’ True Lies as having anything to do with it.

True Lies

The Bottom Line

Replaces the thrills and ickiness with amiable blandness.

Airdate: 10 p.m. Wednesday, March 1 (CBS)
Cast: Steve Howey, Ginger Gonzaga, Omar Miller, Erica Hernandez, Mike O’Gorman, Annabella Didion, Lucas Jaye
Creator: Matt Nix

As a movie, True Lies was a mushroom cloud, every explosion and stunt pushed to a mid-’90s extreme.

As a TV show, CBS’ True Lies is a bottle rocket. The accurate minimization of the series isn’t exactly “cheap,” but it’s definitely “incongruously small.” True Lies is a fizzy throwback that’s closer to something like a Hart to Hart or series creator Matt Nix’s Burn Notice than to a Hollywood smash translated to the small screen.

What Nix has done is recreate the first act of the Cameron movie (and its French source material, the 1991 film La Totale!), skipped over all the uncomfortable and icky stuff that makes up the middle and leapt ahead to the sequels that we never got — probably because, as this series suggests, those sequels might have run the risk of being borderline generic.

Shameless veteran Steve Howey steps into the Arnold Schwarzenegger role as Harry Tasker, an all-purpose spy within the ultra-secretive Omega Sector. Harry is constantly going off on international jaunts to save the world, but as far as his wife Helen (Ginger Gonzaga) knows, he’s a boring computer salesman, prone to missing key events in the lives of teenage kids Dana (Annabella Didion) and Jake (Lucas Jaye). Helen, incidentally, is now a community college linguistics professor with an aptitude for languages, tae-bo and yoga, all of which will come in mighty handy when she learns the truth about Harry’s secret identity and VERY quickly becomes a part of his world of espionage and intrigue.

CBS has been trying to remake True Lies as a series for over a decade, and I have to assume there were versions of the property that attempted to stretch out the revelation of Harry’s secret identity, perhaps to the first season finale or thereabouts. Maybe there were even — God forbid — some versions that attempted to strategize a modern equivalent for the Bill Paxton infidelity subplot from the movie. I’m honestly relieved that wasn’t the way they chose to go, since the longer Helen is oblivious to Harry’s secret the more it invalidates the observational traits that will eventually make her a useful member of the team. But once the show folds her into the team, the overall familiarity of the material makes it hard to get invested. And if you like convoluted secret-keeping, there are still Helen and Harry’s two kids, who barely register so far.

In Helen, Gonzaga has the series’ only fully developed character, through the four episodes sent to critics. She has a clear skill set, albeit one for which the value of all those aforementioned recreational interests is a tiny bit silly, as well as an emotional investment in the life that she and Harry lived before. The writers have even tailored certain aspects of Helen’s backstory, including her Filipino upbringing, to line up with aspects of Gonzaga’s biography, a specificity that isn’t evident anywhere else. As a result, the chronically underused Gonzaga is the show’s most thoroughly appealing element. She’s reliably funny, blending comedy into her physicality, and her uncertainty integrating with the Omega team gives the series some necessary human undercurrents.

Howey, unfortunately, has much less to play. The movie could always fall back on the silly disconnect between a character built like Schwarzenegger but given an ultra-nerdy, ultra-unassuming cover identity. It’s hard to tell exactly what Harry is here, especially since after the prelude, we get almost none of Harry the secret-keeper or Harry the solo spy. People talk about his expertise and excellence — it’s part of why he was “allowed” to have a civilian wife in the first place — but very little of it is on display in either the initial Helen-free mission or subsequent episodes. Howey and Gonzaga bicker with some occasional spark, but the writing has insufficient cleverness to really stand out, never rising to the crackle that existed between Michael and Fiona in the early run of Nix’s Burn Notice.

The other members of the Omega team are even less defined. In the Tom Arnold role as “sarcastic guy in the operations van,” Omar Miller gets to be the exasperated eyes and ears of the audience and is reasonably likable in that capacity. The team also includes Maria (Erica Hernandez) and Luther (Mike O’Gorman), who I’d say were “created” for the show — except that, other than a romantic past, neither has been “created” with much personality. I’m rooting for more screen time for Beverly D’Angelo, a very funny replacement for Charlton Heston as the Omega boss.

Replacing the cartoonish Middle Eastern baddies of the movie, this True Lies goes through a series of wholly interchangeable nefarious weapons dealers and never really finds any sort of stakes or scale to its action. The use of foreign settings — so many Getty Images-style establishing shots of places like “Paris” and “Salzburg” — is meek. The team of directors, starting with Anthony Hemingway in the pilot, fail to mount anything memorable by way of a set piece, with a milquetoast helicopter stunt in the premiere rather amusingly standing is as a shadow of the Harrier-driven spectacle in the movie. There are at least some OK guest stars, including Matthew Lillard, who is so good in his appearance that if the show hits for CBS, I can safely guarantee he will either become a recurring piece of the ensemble or be given a spinoff.

Will True Lies succeed? Not, as I started this conversation, if you come in with high or low expectations based on the movie. CBS’ True Lies is much more in the vein of the network’s semi-recent reboots of things like Magnum, P.I. and MacGyver and Hawaii Five-0. It’s a trifle, not a blockbuster.

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