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Screen Test

Going Undercover in a new way

Nothing turns out as expected in BBC thriller where a defence lawyer tries to get a stay-of-execution for her client

The first episode of the six-part BBC crime thriller Undercover deserves five out of five stars - rarely do you see an hour of television drama so deft at threading the needle in terms of mastering the tropes of the genre so the audience feels what you want them to feel on cue, but with enough of a twist to keep them on the edge of their seats.

The story begins with Maya (Sophie Okonedo), a brilliant British criminal defence and human rights lawyer, racing to a Louisiana prison to petition for an 11th-hour stay-of-execution for her death-row client Rudy Jones (Dennis Haysbert).

With the accused murderer protesting his innocence and the state determined to kill him, it is as tense as you might expect. Yet, despite the fact that countless films and shows have flogged this set-up to death, Undercover manages to find a new way in. Nothing turns out quite as you expect - even the camera does not go where you think it will.

The story then intersects with Maya's life back home in London, which at first glance seems near-perfect: She has a gorgeous family in the form of her devoted husband Nick (Adrian Lester) and their three spirited teenage children, and is up for a promotion to become the first black director of public prosecutions.

Sophie Okonedo plays a British criminal defence and human rights lawyer and Adrian Lester (both above) is her devoted husband. Danny McBride (from left), Kimberly Hebert Gregory and Walton Goggins in Vice Principals.
Sophie Okonedo plays a British criminal defence and human rights lawyer and Adrian Lester (both above) is her devoted husband. PHOTO: BBC

But things are not as they seem: Nick is hiding a devastating secret that could unravel their lives just as Maya's death-row case and career prospects take an unforeseen turn.

The series, too, starts to take a turn for the worse from Episode 2 on. Inspired by real-life cases of women lured into romantic relationships by undercover police officers trying to infiltrate networks of activists, the show becomes mired in the increasingly implausible intrigues of a ridiculous conspiracy that will see the plot tying itself up in knots.

Yet Undercover has many redeeming qualities.

The acting is top-notch, as is most of the writing, which is the handiwork of creator Peter Moffat, a former barrister who built a TV empire by sexing up the dour British legal drama.

He did this with Silk (2011-2014), a show about professional and personal intrigues among a group of London barristers, and with the excellent Criminal Justice (2008-2009), which inspired the current HBO series The Night Of.


Danny McBride (from left), Kimberly Hebert Gregory and Walton Goggins in Vice Principals. PHOTO: HBO ASIA

Maya is as idealised a barrister as any Moffat has imagined, but in a way that feels aspirational rather than cliched. She is passionate, principled and ferociously smart, and her courtroom speeches are so spunky and eloquent you will quietly cheer.

The show is also elevated by a surprisingly thoughtful racial commentary that it juxtaposes with a broader interrogation of the concept of identity - how people constantly make up and redefine who they are depending on the context, and how disadvantaged minorities in particular are often forced to lead double lives in order to fit in.

It broaches these themes with sensitivity and finesse, and does both overtly (with a subplot involving activists protesting police mistreatment of black men) and subtly (with a sweet anecdote about a young black girl straightening her curly hair and scenes of a middle-class black British family sending their daughter to study at Oxford).

Beneath the messy potboiler thriller elements, therefore, lurks a rather insightful, classy drama, which is entertaining enough that you can excuse its schizophrenia.

Watching Vice Principals, on the other hand, is a schizophrenic experience of a different kind: After six episodes, I am still not sure whether to laugh or be horrified at this dark comedy about two vice-principals scheming to unseat the principal of their high school.

  • VIEW IT / UNDERCOVER

  • BBC First (StarHub TV Channel 522), all six episodes of Season 1 now available on demand for a year

    3.5/5 stars

    VICE PRINCIPALS

    HBO (StarHub TV Channel 601), Mondays, 10.30am and 10.30pm; also available on HBO On Demand (StarHub TV Channel 602 / StarHub GO)

    3.5/5 stars

On one level, it is pretty funny watching Neal Gamby (Danny McBride) and Lee Russell (Walton Goggins) behave like petty man-children as they try to undermine and destroy Principal Belinda Brown (Kimberly Hebert Gregory) and are repeatedly thwarted.

Some of the inspired casting choices may have had consequences the creators of the show did not intend, however.

Having a black woman play Principal Brown certainly amps up the dramatic contrast between her and the men, who are both white. But watching two white dudes burn down a black woman's house and reduce her to tears is also a little uncomfortable.

We are clearly meant to laugh and condemn Gamby and Russell's sexist attitudes and occasional racist comments, such as the one where Gamby implies that Dr Brown got her Ivy League degree because of affirmative action alone.

But the series walks a fine line between satirising these entitled white men and potentially apologising for them and their behaviour.

So far, the series has delved deeper into their backstories and personal tragedies than hers.

There are still three more episodes to this season and another nine to go in Season 2, though, so there may be some way to go in the evolution of these characters.

At this point, however, it is hard to say whether they are redeemable, or if the show should even try to make them atone for their sins somehow.

Until that becomes clearer, Vice Principals must live off its finer details and, luckily for the show, these are often marvellously absurd and well-observed.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 24, 2016, with the headline 'Going Undercover in a new way'. Print Edition | Subscribe