Jonathan Storm: CBS sends spy spoof into action

The CIA operatives taking on high-risk missions are (from left) Tim Blake Nelson, James Murray, Eric Close, and Freddy Rodriguez.
The CIA operatives taking on high-risk missions are (from left) Tim Blake Nelson, James Murray, Eric Close, and Freddy Rodriguez.
Posted: March 31, 2011

Forty-seven years ago, there was The Man From U.N.C.L.E., which stood for the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement. In its second year, it got all the way up to No. 13 on the ratings list, giving such classics as Bonanza, The Andy Griffith Show, and The Beverly Hillbillies a run for their money.

The most notable thing about the show is that one of its stars, David McCallum, is still starring on TV, in another acronym-o-rama, NCIS, which gives no scripted TV show a run for its ratings money, since it's No. 1.

CBS's new spy spoof, CHAOS, which premieres Friday at 8 p.m., starts out in the hole by knocking the amiable and amusing The Defenders off the schedule, and it never crawls out all the way. At least, it's something different, unless you count a show that was on 47 years ago, or a lot of the ones on USA.

A ragtag quartet in a subgroup of a subgroup in the CIA takes on high-risk missions, while its budget-strapped bureaucrat director tries to keep the wiseguys chained to their desks.

CHAOS stands for Clandestine Administration and Oversight Services, and, unless you can find an "H" in there (the one in "oversight" doesn't count), you can see that acronym-spinning has come down a notch or two since the '60s.

The four antiheroes (Eric Close, James Murray, Tim Blake Nelson, and Freddy Rodriguez) work in a group called the O.D.S., which is the Office of Disruptive Services and is pronounced almost like "odious," which shows you where the humor bar is here, not record-breaking limbo low but not exactly suited for the high hurdles, either. You wouldn't want to make ODS, or even O.D.S., the title of your show for obvious reasons, because that would be too much of a lob for critics to resist, even though the show is far better than odious.

For example, it features an exasperated Kurtwood Smith, one of TV's best character actors, reprising, with some variations, the role of the frequently infuriated Red, the father on That '70s Show, who had to put up with the incessantly annoying, if usually funny, behavior of a bunch of slacker teenagers.

This time, his character, H.J. Higgins, dearly wishes the overgrown teens in his care would slack till the cows come home. Instead, they're off before the cows are even out of the barn, performing various (expensive) feats of derring-do, "fueled by feckless evil," Higgins says, "sucking the precious lifeblood from the intestinal walls of the agency."

As long as we're into TV history today, we're led to wonder: Does Higgins derive his name from a previous Higgins, another frustrated overseer of the purse strings, who was constantly trying to stop the title character in his show from running off on missions and crashing the boss' Ferrari?

That show was Magnum, P.I., and its star, Tom Selleck, now stars on another CBS show, not quite as amazing as McCallum's feat, since Magnum started only 31 years ago. And if you're noticing a slightly older skew among some of these CBS shows, well CBS notices it, too, which is why the network continues to develop series with little quirks like CHAOS or The Defenders. But its viewers keep insisting on the grim crime of CSI and Criminal Minds, which have five franchisees between them.

Nelson, 47, is the oldest spy, and there's a little irony in his middle-aged character, who is supposed to be a human weapon. Close plays the psych-out artist; Murray is the jokester with a delightful Scottish brogue (a nice change for one of the hordes of English actors on American TV), and Rodriguez is the new guy.

Friday, they travel to the desolate sands of Sudan to free a hostage, who, because he has French and American citizenship, is considered unworthy of such a costly effort. Let La Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure rescue the guy, says Higgins, in not so many words.

It looks like a pretty pricey production effort, too. Will CHAOS stage such swell stuff after the pilot? Signs point to no, especially considering the show almost didn't get made at all because CBS thought Fox, which produces it, wanted too much cash.

Despite its impact on the culture, The Man From U.N.C.L.E lasted only four years. Given the crowd of hits on CBS and the fact that the production company is run by a competitor, it's tough to envision CHAOS going that long.

Who needs a bunch of kind-of-funny guys running all around God's green earth, when you've got enough scary weirdos committing gruesome murder right here at home to keep the audience glued to CBS?


Jonathan Storm:

Television

CHAOS

8 p.m. Friday on CBS3


Contact television critic Jonathan Storm at 215-854-5618 or jstorm@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/

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