True Lies review: CBS reboot is constrained by the confines of network TV
True Lies, the new CBS adaptation of James Cameron’s 1994 action-comedy film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jamie Lee Curtis, reuses an intriguing premise that, if executed well, could have spanned multiple seasons: a computer salesman struggles to keep his double life as an international spy for a U.S. counterterrorism agency secret from his disillusioned wife. But while the show, which premieres March 1, helps expand the world set up in the movie (and makes a commendable effort to put the husband and wife on more even ground), it struggles to reach the heights of its source material and, instead, turns into another spy procedural that feels encumbered by the confines of network TV.
The pilot from Burn Notice creator Matt Nix uses a cold open to introduce the series’ major players: A first-class spy for an agency called Omega Sector with more than 20 years of experience, Harry Tasker (Shameless’ Steve Howey) calls his wife of 17 years, Helen (Ginger Gonzaga), to reveal that he sadly won’t be able to make it back to their Maryland home in time for dinner with their two teens because his sales conference in Cleveland is running long again. But really, he’s in the Caribbean working to capture a dangerous arms dealer with his team: Maria (Erica Hernandez), Luther (Mike O’Gorman), and Gib (Omar Miller).
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A college linguistics professor whose idea of fun these days is speeding through suburban neighborhoods on her way to yoga class, Helen feels emotionally disconnected from Harry and mistakes her husband’s long work trips, covert calls, and late-night texts for him having an affair. Confronted with this theory, Harry makes the rash decision to surprise Helen with a trip to Paris (but fails to mention that he is actually heading there for a mission).
Chaos ensues during dinner at a fancy Parisian restaurant, and before long, Harry finds himself unable to maintain his cover story for much longer, letting his wife in on a secret that he has been keeping since they first met. Taking this shocking revelation in stride, Helen, to her credit, proves that she’s picked up a thing or two from her at-home workouts and yoga classes to help her and Harry get out of a precarious situation (such as how to knock someone out by squeezing your thighs around their neck).
Howey and Gonzaga share a similar dry wit and comedic sensibility, making for some light-hearted, quick-witted banter in their one-on-one scenes that feels reminiscent of partners who have been together for a long time. While Howey is more even-keeled (maybe even to a fault), Gonzaga is a real force of nature, proving that she’s full of surprises with her ability to think on her feet and pull out her knowledge of a foreign language at the drop of a hat.
But despite their best efforts, Howey and Gonzaga can only do so much with the writing they’ve been given. The new True Lies is just the latest example of a big-budget movie that has been fed into the machine that is network TV. The show distills the two-hour movie down to a 42-minute pilot and inevitably strips away some of the elements that made the film—which wasn’t perfect by any means but was still a worthy vehicle for its leads—so distinctive, although those changes might have been made to accommodate the move to CBS. Family friendly comedy constraints have dulled the risqué humor; the big-budget set pieces that only Cameron can pull off have been replaced with decent action but spotty CGI. (Cameron serves as an executive producer but has no direct involvement with the series.)
True Lies | Official Trailer | CBS
The original movie and the pilot of True Lies both end in relatively the same way: After learning about Harry’s secret identity (and almost dying multiple times, including in a helicopter stunt), Helen is recruited to join Omega Sector, allowing the couple to breathe new life into their marriage. But whereas this decision made sense narratively at the end of a film, it seems like a curious choice for a TV pilot. Sure, it makes the show more of a two-hander, but the tension that existed between Schwarzenegger and Curtis’ characters doesn’t last long here because the other lies they’re hiding feel inconsequential in comparison.
The writers are hoping that injecting relatable marital and parental issues in between international missions will be enough to sustain this high-concept premise, but they’ve effectively taken one of Harry’s defining characteristics and thrown it out the window. Having the deception last a few more episodes, or even retooling the premise to give Helen an inner life that isn’t tied to her husband, would have been more compelling. But then again, in this iteration, there’s hardly any room for moral ambiguity, with the work of Omega Sector seeming very black and white. It also doesn’t help that the other characters fall into predictable (and frankly forgettable) archetypes commonly seen in procedurals: the headstrong female agent desperate to prove herself in an overwhelmingly male profession, the tech whiz who doesn’t like leaving the confines of his mobile headquarters, the dutiful agent who is unlucky in his love life, and so on.
The promise that Harry, Helen, and their extended team will somehow get out of these stings alive will keep casual viewers coming back for a healthy dose of escapism week after week, so long as they are willing to suspend their disbelief from time to time. Yet one can’t help but wonder how many more risks the writers could have taken on cable or streaming. And for a show called True Lies, there is an uncomfortable truth: There might not be enough lies to begin with.
True Lies premieres March 1 on CBS
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