Undercover episode 1 review

New BBC drama Undercover starring Sophie Okonedo and Adrian Lester gives you two quality dramas for the price of one…

The whims of TV scheduling sometimes result in the same actor appearing in multiple shows on air at the same time. Remember Tuppence Middleton spending Sundays as scheming adulteress Helene in War & Peace and Thursdays as Dickensian’s preyed-upon heiress? Or Stephen Rea morphing from Prince Kuragin to Inspector Bucket and back again in the same brace of dramas?

With Sophie Okonedo in Undercover, the BBC seems to have pulled off the same trick in a single episode. Undercover gives you two quality dramas for the price of one.

The first is set in the wide, deserted landscapes of the American south and stars Okonedo as a compassionate lawyer burning with the injustice of her client’s imminent execution. It’s all stifling heat, prison gate vigils, callous southern Baptist radio hosts cheering on state murder like a fan at a football game, and acting so powerful it punches through your chest to squeeze the air from your lungs.

The second is a domestic drama set in a leafy London suburb and stars Okonedo as a successful barrister whose triathlon-training husband (Hustle’s Adrian Lester) has a secret. When they met, he was a copper working undercover to infiltrate an activist group whose leader died in police custody. Then marriage and three kids came along, and Nick quit the force but never got around to telling his wife that he isn’t who she thinks he is. Now he’s being forced to come in from the cold, just as she’s poised to become England’s first black Director of Public Prosecution.

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Judging by the title, it’s the second of those premises that will carry the remaining episodes of Undercover, though given the choice, I’d have welcomed a five-hour spell in the former’s strange and sultry atmosphere.

When Maya collapsed in a fit at the precise moment her client of two decades was given a lethal injection, it promised an eerily poetic spin on crime storytelling. As did the episode’s tense, strongly directed opening that foreshadowed Rudy’s near-miss by having Maya’s car almost swiped off the road by a truck as she searched for a ringing phone. When is a phone call ever that important? When it’s a matter of life and death.

Back among the rough and tumble of life at home with Maya and Nick’s three grown-up children, the stakes couldn’t help but dissipate as more familiar TV territory was trod: we saw Maya in chambers, twenty years ago in flashback (the unusual beauty of this cast letting them get away with that one), contemplating the evidence wall of the ongoing case that defined her career…

The oppressive, pregnant ambiance of the US sequence didn’t return, but in its place grew a steadily establishing legal and family drama that felt satisfyingly as though character decisions were driving the plot, not the other way around.

Writer Peter Moffat (Silk) quickly made leads Nick and Maya pleasingly complex. Our sympathy for Nick, a lying spouse to beat them all, was ensured by showing him caring for the sick father he’d never been able to introduce to his family, and for his adoring autistic son. When he chose to attend his wife’s call instead of his dying dad’s bedside, the breadth of the lie Nick was trapped by was made clear.

Lies and their vine-like grip on the people who tell them is very much Undercover’s subject, both in Nick’s situation and Maya’s dogged professional investigation of what seems to have been a covered-up custodial murder. Perhaps introducing a son whose condition compels him to literal understanding and truth-telling is a bit thematically on the nose, but with just five episodes to tell this story (the collapsed run-time perhaps explaining the world’s shortest and most inconsequential holiday to Cornwall?), it works.

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What else works is this cast. If Lester is impressive then Okonedo is transcendent. In court, in love, around the family dinner table and addressing a crowd of mourners, she’s never not compelling. Move over Tom Hiddleston’s Bond fantasy, Sunday nights belong to someone else now.