Steve Howey (“Shameless”) is wildly miscast as Harry Tasker, an ordinary salesman living in suburbia with his wife Helen (series MVP Ginger Gonzaga) and two kids, Dana (Annabella Didion) and Jake (Lucas Jaye). The premiere episode, airing March 1, cycles through much of the plot of the 1994 movie. Harry’s cover is blown in a way that forces him to reveal to his wife that he’s actually a super-spy, bringing her in on a mission. And so, “True Lies” the show becomes a story about two spies instead of one as Helen gets trained in U.S. intelligence techniques while trying to keep her cover from her kids. It’s a bizarre misstep in that watching Harry balance domesticity and espionage for at least a few episodes might have given the start of the season a bit of a jolt. This “True Lies” doesn’t have much energy when it becomes a show that’s not really about, well, lies told in marriage.
Much worse than going for something that’s more “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” from the jump is how bafflingly dull the actual spy missions are in each episode. Whether they’re chasing down an assassin from a previous mission gone wrong or going undercover in a casino, the writing of the actual spyhood here is so remarkably boring with cheap graphics and bland mechanics. It doesn’t help that the rest of the crew around Tasker is one of those dull assemblies of non-characters, people who might get a quirky line or two but are just there to push the plot along (Omar Miller deserves better).
All of these structural flaws mean that a lot of the entertainment value of the show falls at the feet of its two leads. Gonzaga is charming in a way that makes it believable that she wouldn’t just panic and run when she found out her husband was a spy. She captures the kind of person who would just see this latest hurdle as another thing to overcome, and she truly holds the show together when it’s working. On the other hand, the often-charming Howey is dull when Harry needs to be charming and suave. And yet he’s also not quite there as an average family dad. I know it’s not fair to compare to the original, but Schwarzenegger was convincing both as a family man and an action star, but Howey can’t figure out either. He’s charismatic enough of a performer to work through it and get there eventually, but I wondered if it was intentional to make another bland CBS protagonist to appeal to the widest common denominator.