Few series will emotionally knock you down faster than Undercover (BBC America), a new miniseries about police and state violence against black activists. Early in the first hour, criminal defense attorney Maya (Sophie Okonedo) meets with her death-row client of two decades, Rudy (Dennis Haysbert), for what she desperately hopes isn’t the last time. When it becomes clear that her appeal for clemency will be ignored, Maya tells Rudy the story of her difficult first childbirth and the moment she knew that her just-born daughter would survive. The little girl’s struggle for life is followed by the aging protester’s struggle for a meaningful death — a final attempt to reclaim his body. The shared history between Maya and Rudy is practically visible between them, and Okonedo is wondrously fiery and grievously forlorn — a phoenix screaming silently in torment.
The phrase “Black Lives Matter” is never heard — unless you count inside your head, where it’ll ring nonstop as the six-part series airs today and tomorrow (November 16-17). The London- and Louisiana-set Undercover takes on racially motivated police brutality, the anti-black cruelties of capital punishment, and the media’s complicity in defaming activists. As incredibly moving as the miniseries can be, though, the plot becomes numbingly ludicrous despite borrowing its premise from real-life events. And so this transatlantic melodrama’s claims to sociopolitical importance and timeliness are almost entirely undone by the multiplying absurdities.
So many wayward story lines and eventual loose threads turn up that summarizing everything that happens wouldn’t be that different from recalling a dream. It all begins with a deception that Maya’s husband, Nick (a fantastic Adrian Lester), has committed for the last 20 years. A former undercover officer assigned to seduce and spy on Maya, he left the force after fathering a child with her — a self-made trap inspired by a 2010 U.K. police scandal. A couple more children and nearly two dozen years later, Nick is blackmailed by his former handler to report on his wife again when she’s promoted to the country’s top prosecutor position and promises to root out police corruption — a mission that includes finding the real killer responsible for the beating death of an anti-brutality leader at the beginning of her career.
But wait, there’s more: Maya ignores her new and possibly fatal diagnosis of epilepsy while battling Louisiana prosecutors’ attempts to execute Rudy for a second time after they botch it on their first try. Nick’s worries about his family’s fate, especially for the sake of his autistic teenage son, Dan (Daniel Ezra), make him commit to morally and tactically unhinged strategies that will obviously blow up in his face. About halfway through the miniseries, Nick perpetrates a devastating betrayal that evaporates much of our sympathy for his plight. From there, writer Peter Moffat keeps piling up more crises like Minions, trading in their impact for noise.
Still, Undercover’s dramatizations of our legal system’s racist depravities never flag in their power to horrify. After the first execution attempt, Maya offers Rudy the choice between possible mental impairment and death — a lower IQ might mean he’d be considered incompetent to stand trial again. But as blistering as Moffat’s criticisms and as lived-in as the lead performances are — especially in the glimpses of familial bliss, so rare in a black context in mainstream pop culture — it becomes harder to care about Nick’s panic and paralysis against a backdrop of murderous cover-ups and the simplification of Dan into a sentimental prop. Okonedo nearly saves the miniseries with her primal pain when Maya inevitably discovers her husband’s secret, but it’s too late by that point. We can still feel the dull thud of collective suffering, but Nick is exactly the wrong type of shot: We’re dazed and anesthetized by everything he touches.