If you’re the kind of person who still pays close attention to what the traditional broadcast networks are doing, you may have noticed that this has been the most uninspiring season for the Big Four in a very long time. Even with the very recent success of This Is Us on NBC, it feels like the networks have completely given up on the idea of competing with cable and streaming when it comes to drama. They know audiences aren’t expecting complexity from them, so they’ve stopped trying to offer it. Instead, everything’s either an outright remake of a show from decades past, or a close enough approximation that a time traveler from the Seventies might only be confused by the technology and more explicit sex references.
ABC’s new Whiskey Cavalier (it premieres Sunday, Feb. 24th, right after the Oscars and again in its regular time slot, Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET) is itself trying very hard — at times much too hard — to be the best new show of 1986. But to its credit, the Scott Foley/Lauren Cohan spy series is at least trying to be the type of show the networks haven’t made much of in a long time. It’s a light-comic action-drama where the emphasis is on the chemistry between the two leads, with plot and everything else as a bonus. This was a hugely popular Eighties subgenre — see: Moonlighting, Remington Steele, Hart to Hart, Scarecrow and Mrs. King and more — but most shows of recent vintage that have tried it (say, Chuck or Castle) have added enough narrative gimmicks to work beyond the will-they-or-won’t-they of it all.
Whiskey Cavalier has no interest in distractions or misdirection. The entire show (created by Dave Hemingson, working with an eclectic group of producers including Scrubs creator Bill Lawrence and Key & Peele director Peter Atencio) is interested almost exclusively in the banter, bickering and low-simmering heat between its two attractive leads. Their dynamic — Cohan’s CIA agent Frankie is the cold and ruthless one, while Foley’s FBI agent Will(*) is the emotional hot mess in the wake of a bad breakup — is something of a gender role reversal, but only if you haven’t seen Chuck or Castle or several dozen other shows that have done this flip since the days when it might have been surprising. They begin as professional rivals but are soon (with minimal justification beyond “they’re the stars of the show”) working together, along with a cast of comic-relief sidekicks played by, among others, Tyler James Williams, Ana Ortiz and Josh Hopkins.
(*) The series’ title comes from Will’s radio call sign (his last name is Chase), despite the show clearly being a two-hander between him and Frankie. How do you not find a way to name the series after both of them? This shouldn’t be hard, yet somehow it always seems like it is.
The two leads spark off each other well enough and are solid fits for their respective roles. Foley’s played so many parts over his career that either lean into his handsome alpha-maleness (The Unit, Scandal) or invert it for laughs (including a stint on Scrubs) that he can nimbly toggle back and forth between Will at his most lethal and at his sappiest. Cohan’s best known for gritting her teeth against the many miseries inflicted on her on The Walking Dead, but she’s lively and energetic in the same way so many TWD alums have been in recent years when other roles have allowed them to smile.
The series gets good value out of filming on location in Europe, and the action scenes are pretty good, albeit not a patch on what Foley’s ex-wife Jennifer Garner was doing on this network’s Alias close to 20 years ago. In most ways, it’s a decent approximation of the types of shows it’s paying homage to. But very often it’s also straining. In the opening episode, Williams’ character quips at the leads, “Lotta sexual tension in the car,” spelling out what was already obvious. And the second episode climaxes with our heroes in a heart-to-heart during a potentially deadly situation, which is way too soon for that kind of moment to happen and feel like it matters (not to mention too soon to depart from their usual bickering).
Shoot the whole thing on a studio backlot and maybe delete the scene in the second episode where Frankie has to remove a corpse’s eyeball (mostly off-camera), and almost nothing about Whiskey Cavalier would have to change to exist in the era of the series that inspired it. That’s not necessarily a bad thing: There’s a reason the phrase “they don’t make ’em like they used to” is said with nostalgia. This is a show like they used to make ’em. But it’s also one that needs to relax a bit and trust that its leads are as appealing together as the other characters keep telling us that they are.