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Outside of what they’re attempting on Glee, is there a harder genre to juggle appropriately than a dramedy about CIA spies?
Seriously, you’d think the writers would do something easier, like perform retinal surgery on themselves with spoons. What kind of misguided masochist thinks it’s a great idea to throw whimsy on top of a nuts-and-bolts CIA procedural? Well, the creators of Chaos, clearly. On the one hand they want to be The Unit, while on the other — How I Met Your Mother.
I mention CBS shows here (R.I.P., Unit), because Chaos is on CBS and perhaps people who are not immediately put off by the premise are, inherently, CBS viewers. While I greatly admire CBS for being the best-run broadcast network with the kind of precision that would make Germans engineers lose their breath, I’m even more in awe of something else at CBS: It can get people to watch shows like Mike & Molly and $#*! My Dad Says against all reason and taste. And not just some people — a lot of people. So that is an essential factor in the fate of Chaos.
The series is about “a group of rogue CIA spies in Clandestine Administration and Oversight Services,” according to CBS, which to my mind doesn’t make a lick of sense — but neither did the network taking a Twitter sensation and making it a sitcom (and look what happened there). Chaos (who knows where the “h” comes from in the acronym) focuses on Rick Martinez (Freddy Rodriguez), who has trained his whole life to be a CIA agent, but finds out on his first day that the job he got has been eliminated. His obviously nefarious boss, Deputy Director H.J. Higgins (Kurtwood Smith), tells him he can walk out the door a civilian or sign up to be spy — who spies on his co-workers.
They include the good-looking, smart leader, Michael Dorset (Eric Close), the Scottish-born Billy Collins (James Murray) and Casey Malick (Tim Blake Nelson), the 12-year-CIA veteran who seems slightly off (which should generate humor at some point, one would think, though it wasn’t readily evident in the pilot). They figure out Martinez is a mole immediately, put him in a compromising position (that’s supposed to be funny) and then use him as a pawn to get back at Higgins while they go rescue a bunch of people in the desert.
It’s not clear why creator Tom Spezialy (who has executive produced a number of series, from Ed to Reaper to Desperate Housewives) wanted to include the light comedy that’s layered over Chaos like sugar on a donut. The show plays more like a drama anyway until it steps sideways into comedy, mostly involving Rodriguez. It’s that kind of feint that makes you second-guess the drama, to doubt its intent and not buy in. Or it could be that CBS executives wanted to get some of that blue-sky-styled television so popular on USA and TNT. But if you’re at all discerning, it’s like getting peanut butter on your steak. You’d rather have that separate. And on different nights.
But then again, the whole blue-sky phenomenon of light comedy and grit-less drama laced with witty banter is very popular (much of the witty banter and charm comes from Murray and his Scottish accent). And viewers on CBS are so well targeted by the network that they seem immune from saying no to just about anything, so Chaos is likely to be a hit.
Yet it seems like the series could have been more daring had it really opted in for some spy spoofery. Or it could have been yet another procedural that lovingly and effortlessly kills an hour on CBS (and that’s a compliment, not snark). If you want a much better spy dramedy, try Chuck on NBC (where Spezialy was briefly a consulting producer). Of course, NBC might kill Chuck, because the ratings are woeful. CBS always seems to have a sure thing, no matter what it is or how good it is.
Email Tim Goodman at Tim.Goodman@THR.com
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