'Whiskey Cavalier': TV Review

Pretty, fast-paced and mighty shallow popcorn entertainment.
2/27/2019

Scott Foley, Lauren Cohan and nicely shot international locations add some crackle to ABC's otherwise rudimentary relationship-driven espionage series.

There was a period when networks found it weirdly easy to churn out romantic action dramedies in which a pair of pretty people would bicker and flirt and fight crime. Sometimes they'd kiss. Sometimes we'd just desperately want them to kiss. And sometimes once they kissed, we realized how wrong we were for having wanted that in the first place.

It was the age of Moonlighting and Remington Steele and Hart to Hart and Simon & Simon — don't you dare tell me they were brothers — and Scarecrow and Mrs. King.

You can find recent successes of varying scales. Castle was a long-running hit, but it was never fully comfortable with the relationship side of the storytelling. Chuck was beloved and had a reasonable run, but was always more of a cult success.

It's easier to point to failures like NBC's Undercovers or ABC's Thieves or The Catch or Take Two.

All ABC wants is for it to be the mid-'80s again. Is that so wrong?

The network's latest stab at this sort of fizzy throwback is Whiskey Cavalier, a romantic action-dramedy in which a pair of pretty people bicker and flirt and fight international crime. With a creative team plucked primarily from the comedy world — David Hemingson (Kitchen Confidential) created, Adam Sztykiel (Undateable) wrote the second episode and Bill Lawrence (Scrubs) executive produced — it's no wonder that Whiskey Cavalier thrives on the light and frothy side of things. At least it thrives on something!

If you approach the show looking for nicely shot European locations, a preposterously photogenic cast and the occasional witty barb, Whiskey Cavalier often delivers. Ask for anything more — plausibility, dramatic stakes, thoughtful timeliness, character nuance, etc. — and any disappointment you experience is on you.

Sneaking after the Oscars before moving to its regular Wednesday 10 p.m. time period on Wednesday, Whiskey Cavalier begins as the story of ultra-empathetic FBI agent Will Chase (Scott Foley), who is still struggling in the aftermath of a breakup with his girlfriend. Will's problem is that he feels too much and feels too easily, but that's also his greatest strength. Will's new mission is to find a computer expert (Tyler James Williams' Edgard) who recently hacked the State Department and is either a horrible domestic cyber-terrorist or a likably nerdy whistleblower. Since Williams is a cast regular, try not to be too shocked when you find out which of those things he is.

Also seeking Edgar, it turns out, is CIA operative Frankie Trowbridge (Lauren Cohen), efficient and emotionless and ruthless. Will thinks the CIA is just a bunch of trigger-happy cowboys; Frankie thinks the FBI is a bunch of boy scouts. They're so darned different! How will they ever find a way to work together? And how, in 42-ish minutes, will they come to form a team that also includes ace profiler Susan (Ana Ortiz), tech-forward Jai (Vir Das) and possibly even Will's friend and fairly inept FBI colleague Ray (Josh Hopkins)?

Whiskey Cavalier asks you to sit through a lot of flimsy and fairly needless setup in order to get to a series premise that you'd probably have accepted in under 10 minutes. To establish what is simply a tenuous agency-spanning collaboration, the pilot requires us to wait patiently as FBI and CIA agents tie each other up, point guns at each other, jeopardize each other's lives and then, eventually, just shrug and say, "OK, I guess we're a squad now." In the interim, Frankie and Will keep insulting each other for their one character trait apiece.

Filling the rest of the time in both episodes sent to critics are completely perfunctory espionage plotlines. The first episode focuses on the retrieval of a NOC list that Edgar downloaded, the second on a well-kept ledger of criminal activities, the sort of ledger that can only be retrieved from a vault with a retinal scan, setting up some gory farce that you can't help but see coming.

Whiskey Cavalier doesn't treat these rudimentary spy tropes as fresh and original, nor does it resort to winking genre self-awareness. There's approximately zero implication that the show takes place in any particular geo-political context, whether we're talking about our current president or intelligence agencies or escalating or diminishing international conflicts. Episodic storylines and global intrigue are just temporary impositions to be moved past in a hurry.

Director Peter Atencio (Keanu) knows how to hurry, and he knows how to get value out of European locations. There's decent use of Paris and some Euro countrysides in the first episode, while the second episode has even more evident production freedom in Prague.

Audiences are familiar with the Alias model of faux international shooting, one that opens with a stock footage skyline with identifying chyron and then combines generic nighttime shooting and interiors looking out on a scrim or greenscreen. Atencio and the Whiskey Cavalier team shoot outside a lot and shoot in the daytime a lot, with the payoff being an authentic backdrop for a series that isn't otherwise awash in realism. Atencio also captures some decent stuntwork and action choreography, even if nothing is quite as vivid as the opening episodes of his somewhat similar one-and-done Amazon dramedy Jean-Claude Van Johnson.

Between the character trait repetition and not-always-crisp flirtations — Will points an unseen gun at Frankie, but has to specify it isn't his penis, the same joke that fell flat in the dismal Take Two — I don't love everything the script does with Frankie and Will, but I like both performances.

Foley, returning to his nice-guy roots after his murkier Scandal work, flashes some vintage James Garner-style charm, with assertive physicality and a silver tongue. He's a lovable puppy dog, while Cohan gets to play something pricklier and more feline. After years of being marginalized and wasted on The Walking Dead, she really breaks out here and gets to enjoy being slinky and snarky and vicious. Regardless of the quality of the dialogue, they snip and snap with admirable timing and building undercurrent.

The series hinges so totally on this pair and their chemistry that I'm baffled why only Will's character — Will Chase = Whiskey Cavalier — gets his name in the title. It's not Foley's show or Will's story, so why didn't the producers go "Will + Frankie = Whiskey Foxtrot" or something? Was the Tina Fey movie the only impediment? Maybe find a totally different name then?

Though the pilot sticks Williams' Edgar with too many predictable nerdy or cowardly beats — this feels like a part Chris Rock has played in five movies — he gets more to do in the second episode, as do Ortiz and Das. Hopkins' character feels like he was introduced in a variety of obnoxious ways in the first episode because nobody knew Ray would have to stick around and it's probably going to take a while to adjust and fix that character. The show boasts solid early guest turns from the likes of Dylan Walsh and Bellamy Young, whose ABC-friendly presence probably explains why that third episode and its Scandal reunion has been bumped up to second in the airing order.

If I don't care about Will and Frankie as a couple, or even a professional partnership — there's no real reason to invest in the formation of this team and their goals — those are liabilities. But Foley and Cohan look great and the evident pleasure they're having playing spy is infectious when coupled with the postcard locations and a little action flair. Whiskey Cavalier may not take you back to 1985, but it comes closer than some of the recent stabs at this genre.

Cast: Scott Foley, Lauren Cohan, Ana Ortiz, Tyler James Williams, Vir Das, Josh Hopkins
Creator: David Hemingson
Executive producers: David Hemingson, Bill Lawrence, Jeff Ingold, Peter Atencio
Sneak premiere: Sunday, after the Academy Awards
Airs: Wednesdays, 10 p.m. ET/PT (ABC)