tv review

Whiskey Cavalier Is Sweet, Silly, and Familiar

Photo: Larry D. Horricks/ABC

Whiskey Cavalier is an old-school network dramedy, a piece of TV that feels like it was unearthed from an era long since past. That’s not necessarily bad; there’s something charming about its happy-go-lucky sweetness, and it’s a relief to watch a show aim at goofy fun and actually hit its target. But it’s also a show where most the recent cultural reference is a DVD copy of You’ve Got Mail, some of the jokes feel dated, and the settings (whether Paris, Moscow, or a random European farmhouse) look like hand-me-down locations from the first Bourne movie.

Whiskey Cavalier’s lead is FBI agent Will Chase (call sign Whiskey Cavalier), played by the charming and extremely game Scott Foley. Its secondary lead is Lauren Cohan as Frankie Trowbridge, a no-nonsense CIA operative who unexpectedly becomes Will Chase’s partner. (Trowbridge is unmistakably a secondary lead, in spite of the vaguely Mr. and Mrs. Smith premise of the show.) By the end of the pilot, they’ve gathered an unlikely team of misfits to stop international corruption, so the whole thing feels par for the course.

Now, there’s no reason why the protagonist of a sexy goofy spy show can’t be a handsome straight white male lead, or why he shouldn’t be the head of a secret team of spies operating outside the boundaries of the government, where his underlings happen to be women and people of color. I can think of some reasons why that shouldn’t be the case, but if that premise must be the starting point, as is it in Whiskey Cavalier, it’s hard to find fault with much else about the show’s execution. It’s silly! It’s a well-made espionage romp, carried in large part by how much fun Foley seems to be having and how little it lets absurdities like “weaponized Ebola” or plot coherence or anything in the realm of realism get in its way.

Much like Whiskey Cavalier itself, its lead character is a big ball of feelings masquerading as a guns-and-explosions connoisseur. The opening scene of the pilot is also my favorite moment of the two episodes provided to critics in advance: Chase is in a darkened room in Paris, surrounded by empty pizza boxes, beer bottles, DVD cases for rom-coms, and a discarded engagement ring, weeping while he sings along to “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” His girlfriend Gigi broke up with him, see, and he’s having a hard time pulling it together so that he can go back out in the field and take down a sleazy bioweapons dealer. After his dubiously competent boss Ray does a terrible job of empathizing (“What a great time to be single!”), Chase gathers his wits enough to zip up his standard-issue black leather spy jacket, meet with the arms dealer in a cemetery, and eventually run after a mysterious bald man through the streets of Paris so he can capture capture a vial full of, I guess, weaponized Ebola.

The vial itself is the least important thing about this show. It’s full of red liquid (red equals danger), it’s held inside a metallic-looking screw-cap case onto which someone has affixed a yellow sticker with a biohazard symbol, and it doesn’t even stick around for the full first episode. (In other words, it’s the sort of TV spy-show prop that says “I’m dangerous!” while simultaneously whispering, “haha, not really.”) The vial only matters because while trying to capture it, Chase leaps over a hedge, runs down some stairs, jumps off a bridge onto a boat, and eventually gets distracted by a wedding proposal on a street corner because he’s still sad about his ex-girlfriend. When the pursuit scene culminates with Chase catching the vial as it flies through the air before he pauses to wipe away a tear while contemplating his lost love, I laughed out loud. That’s Whiskey Cavalier at its best: just a dumb, kooky good time, details be damned.

After two episodes, it’s hard to know which direction Whiskey Cavalier will lean, but I see a few possible futures for the show. The core of the show is Foley’s fundamentally gooberish performance and his promising chemistry with Cohan, so it’d be a shame if Whiskey Cavalier gets tied up in its own excessive plot strings, throwing so much effort into baroque spy nonsense that it becomes a show about giant twists with rapidly diminishing returns. It could also slide into the trap of the undistinguished procedural, becoming a show where each episode features Will Chase and Co. ticking off some spy trope boxes and calling it a week.

But there’s another version, one that you can see already glimpses of throughout Whiskey Cavalier. If it somehow morphs into a spy hangout comedy, following in the path of executive producer Bill Lawrence’s Cougar Town, Whiskey Cavalier could carry on in the vein of solid friendship-focused, adventure-driven shows like Chuck, Leverage, or Limitless. To make that happen, though, the show will need to give up its more groan-worthy jokes, like a bit where Tyler James Williams’ character reaches into Chase’s front pocket to retrieve a handcuff key, and Chase cracks, “Uh, that’s not my key.” It’s hard to imagine a scenario where the relevant piece of anatomy could ever be mistaken for a bunch of keys, but the line does fit the bill for an (apparently indispensable) har-har joke about the awkwardness of two men touching one another in a sensitive place.

I hope Whiskey Cavalier pulls it off. There’s room for silly, fun stories on TV that are actually silly and fun, even if they feel comfortably familiar.

Whiskey Cavalier Is Sweet, Silly, and Familiar