Kodjoe and Mbatha-Raw: if only they were better looking

It’s tough on a new show when high expectations aren’t immediately met in the ratings. That challenge seems to be dogging Undercovers right now.
I was on the set of the NBC series in Burbank last week. The fourth episode airs tonight at 8 p.m. on NBC and Citytv. I wrote about co-star Boris Kodjoe’s fight to keep the show on the air for the Canadian Press this week. You can read the full story here.
Kodjoe, who was a tennis star in his college days, is not about to take the low ratings lying down. He seemed to be lobbying for a time change for his series, which opened to 8.7 million viewers in September but slipped to 7.2 million the next week. He was friendly but defiant as we chatted in his trailer on the Warner Bros. studio lot. Undercovers shoots on sound stages 20 and 27A. The latter has quite a list of successful former tenants, including Cold Case, Fantasy Island, Kung Fu, the last few seasons of Bonanza and, going way back to the ’50s, Hawaiian Eye. Feature films such as Batman and Robin, Mildred Pierce and two versions of A Star is Born also shot on Stage 27, which dates back to 1935. The info is all there on a plaque beside the stage’s giant elephant doors.
When I visited the set last Thursday, Kodjoe and co-stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Gerard McRaney were locked in a scene on Stage 20. That’s where the Bloom Catering set stands. It’s a cool set, with the large kitchen area alive with propane stove tops and dry ice to simulate rising steam. Tons of food, both fake and real, are on the shelves.
The three actors were in a scene shot in a dimly-lit back room set up just behind the Bloom Catering kitchen area. (The cover for the husband-and-wife spies is that they are in the catering business.) McRaney, playing peeved as usual, was spitting out orders. The scene was shot again and again until the director and crew were happy with the take.
It was around 8 p.m. when everybody broke for lunch. Kodjoe said he knew headlining an hour-long drama would be a marathon from his previous series, Soul Food, a Showtime production shot in Toronto.
Soul Food shot four seasons on T.O. but never aired in Canada. Kodjoe says the cast used to gather in a bar on King Street that had a grey market satellite dish just so they could watch their own series. The 37-year-old actor loves Toronto and says he would live there now “if it wasn’t so far north.” There’s diversity in New York or Berlin, he says, “ but at the end of the day, when it is dark and you go home, you still go to your very specific community. In Toronto, you see family portraits with people of three or four ethnicities in one picture.”
Mbatha-Raw’s trailer is right next to Kodjoe’s. She is as pretty in person as she is on the series. The actors were shooting the 10th episode the day I visited the set and the long hours and days were getting to both leads. Mbatha-Raw says future episodes are fun, however. “It starts to get more intriguing as we go along,” she says. “Samantha’s still harbouring a few secrets. She hasn’t been entirely honest with her husband.”
As for her name, “Gugu,” it is South African and short for Gugulethu, which means, “our pride.”
One of those future episodes, the eighth, finds the two handcuffed to each other for much of the hour. Mbatha-Raw says this was a challenge given that Kodjoe is exactly a foot taller. Look for the episode in three weeks–although, if Kodjoe gets his wish, NBC may have moved this series to a new night and time by then.

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