Although the time slot directly following the Academy Awards isn’t as high-profile as the post-Super Bowl position, it’s still a guarantee that a larger-than-usual audience will likely be watching. ABC is using that built-in viewership this year to launch Whiskey Cavalier, a breezy spy dramedy that feels like something USA or TNT would have aired a decade ago. It may not quite be what Oscar viewers are expecting, but it’s the kind of show that’s easy to watch, which is probably what people who have just endured three-plus hours of an awards telecast need.
The title refers to the code name for FBI agent Will Chase (Scott Foley), a top operative who’s a little off his game after being dumped by his fiancée. On a mission in Europe, Will crosses paths with steely CIA agent Frankie Trowbridge (The Walking Dead’s Lauren Cohan), who is trying to capture the same rogue hacker. They bicker and take turns holding each other hostage, but there’s clearly a mutual respect beneath the antagonism, and of course by the end they have to team up to defeat the real bad guy. The pilot is a long set-up for the show’s ongoing premise, as Will and Frankie are put in charge of one of those ultra-secret, multi-agency task forces that only exist in spy movies and TV series. Can they work together without killing each other? And will their snarky banter blossom into romance?
The answer to both of those questions is yes, of course, although the second one has to be taken on faith, at least in the two episodes provided for review. By the second episode, supporting characters are already commenting on the sexual tension between Will and Frankie, and it’s certainly only a matter of time before they hook up (provided the show isn’t canceled before then). To its credit, Whiskey Cavalier never tries to pretend otherwise, and part of the fun is seeing how Foley and Cohan play out the familiar romantic dynamic.
Foley gets to channel a bit of his sensitive-guy experience from his time playing Noel Crane on Felicity, as Will wears his heart on his sleeve, telling just about anyone who will listen (including potential targets) about his recent break-up. He seems to have a relevant self-help catch phrase for any situation.
Frankie is the tough one who claims to never let emotions interfere with her work, but obviously she has a soft interior that just needs to be reached. It’s a predictable match-up that’s only slightly tweaked by reversing the typical gender breakdown, but Foley and Cohan have appealing chemistry, and the writing is sharp enough that the characters don’t come off as generic archetypes. Will gets more substantial development in the first two episodes, but as the series progresses, Frankie’s likely to take more of the spotlight.
It also helps that the leads are surrounded by entertaining supporting characters, including Edgar Standish (Tyler James Williams), the rebellious hacker they chase in the pilot, and ace profiler Susan Sampson (Ana Ortiz), who spends as much time psychoanalyzing her colleagues as she does delving into the motives of criminals. Josh Hopkins has an amusing recurring role as Will’s goofy frenemy Ray Prince, who becomes the team’s handler over the objections of nearly every member. The team even sets up shop in a dive bar called The Dead Drop, working as tavern owners as part of their cover story (naturally, they “officially don’t exist”).
The bar-set hangout vibe, the emotionally vulnerable dialogue, the silly jokes and the presence of Josh Hopkins all indicate the influence of executive producer Bill Lawrence, creator of Scrubs and Cougar Town, who’s an unlikely creative force for a spy show, but turns out to bring just the right balance of humor, heart and action. Creator Dave Hemingson has experience on both sitcoms and dramas, and previously worked on the similarly witty, fast-paced espionage drama The Catch. In addition to lighthearted basic-cable crime shows like Burn Notice and Leverage, Whiskey Cavalier recalls the short-lived J.J. Abrams-produced spy drama Undercovers, which also combined romantic banter with globe-trotting action.
Plot-wise, it's full of spy clichés: The first episode involves the theft of a list of the identities of undercover CIA agents as well as the clandestine hand-off of a vial containing a deadly virus, and the second episode finds the agents tracking a smuggler’s ledger with information on all his underworld contacts. The double-crosses and daring escapes are all easy to see coming, and the storylines exist mainly to facilitate the snappy banter, stylish travel and occasional action sequences.
At least for now, though, the episodes are also refreshingly self-contained. There’s no overarching mythology to bog the characters down or looming Big Bad to periodically threaten them. They solve the case, catch the bad guys, exchange a few quips, and then knock back a few at The Dead Drop. It’s an old-fashioned formula, but in a world of convoluted, dark, slow-paced dramas, it’s a welcome (and well-executed) change of pace.
Premiering tonight at 11:35 ET/10 PT on ABC, following the Oscars, before moving into its regular time slot Wednesday at 10 p.m. ET/PT, Whiskey Cavalier stars Scott Foley, Lauren Cohan, Ana Ortiz, Tyler James Williams, Vir Das and Josh Hopkins.