One of the weakest James Cameron movies begets a CBS TV show that has its own unique flaws
If you’re going to do a TV reboot of any James Cameron movie, it might as well be True Lies, his weakest directorial effort that doesn’t involve flying piranhas. The 1994 Arnold Schwarzenegger/Jamie Lee Curtis action-comedy was undercut by the same fidelity to traditionalism that makes other Cameron features enjoyable. His Avatar films feel like riveting fables, for instance, while Titanic had a sweeping nature to its old-school romanticism. Tragically, True Lies was traditional in that it regurgitated stale observations on domestic married life. Then there were the uncomfortable gender and racial stereotypes that were already long outdated before the movie ever hit theaters.
A CBS drama adaptation of True Lies (which itself was based on a French comedy by the name of La Totale!) would lack Cameron’s gift for staging large-scale action sequences, granted. But there’s at least room for improvement here, especially if you got a great creative team to reinterpret the basic concept of this property. Alas, that’s not what’s happened here. The True Lies TV show has just found new ways to underwhelm the viewer rather than an exciting incarnation of a familiar plot.
In this version, Schwarzenegger’s Harry Tasker is now played by Steve Howey, while Curtis’s Helen Tasker is portrayed by She-Hulk veteran Ginger Gonzaga. Much like in the earlier film, Harry is a secret spy who masquerades as a boring suburban dad around his family. While Harry believes he’s doing a bang-up job balancing spy stuff and domestic life, Helen is worried their relationship is falling apart. After all, her husband is always away overseas on “business trips.” Is the man she once loved even interested in her anymore?
In an attempt to turn their marriage around, Harry invites Helen to Paris, where he secretly has an important mission to pull off. The pilot episode of True Lies then shows the two halves of Harry’s life colliding grandly, as an intimate romantic dinner between the Taskers gets interrupted by gunmen. Bullets are flying, windows are getting shattered, and secrets are being revealed.
The introductory episode of True Lies occasionally demonstrates one or two interesting ideas. The most notable of these is an early sequence where the camera cuts back and forth between Harry engaging in hand-to-hand combat and Helen doing some exercises, including some punches, in her living room. The visual dissonance between the two environments alone should inspire some comedy while, theoretically, creating some parallels between the physicality of the two Taskers could be a cute way to suggest that these two aren’t as different as they seem.
Unfortunately, this sequence is undercut by awkward editing that haphazardly darts between these locations. Meanwhile, the unimaginative lighting and backdrops means that director Anthony Hemingway fails to wring any amusing juxtaposition out of this beat. On the page, this must’ve seemed to writer Matt Nix like a rich moment merging characterization and punching. Instead, in in its final form, this scene is indicative of the sloppy craftsmanship weighing down the first episode.
Haphazard editing keeps sinking all the extended sight scenes in this inaugural installment, including a chase scene that concludes on an explosive note. Good luck appreciating any of the fight choreography or flourishes in the action sequences when so little thought has gone into the transitions between shots. Somehow more frustrating than the editing in True Lies, though, is the personalities of our two protagonists. This is the gravest flaw so far, as a pilot episode is supposed to make you want to come back and spend more time with its characters. It’s a free sample of even more delectable dishes down the road.
Alas, the leads would be utterly forgettable even if there weren’t superior earlier versions of these characters to compare them to. Harry Tasker, for instance, is realized primarily as a bland figure who just always wants the best for his family. His pervasively well-meaning nature robs him of any personality and never comes off as genuinely moving. Helen, meanwhile, is portrayed as a standard network TV drama suburban mom who has no real life beyond her relationship to her husband. Gonzaga has some charm in her line deliveries, but even she can only do so much to liven up dead-on-arrival dialogue.
These just aren’t the kind of people you’d want to hang out with week after week, especially since the spy exploits they get into aren’t very fun. Any opportunity to lean into the ridiculous nature of espionage stories for maximum fun is bafflingly eschewed. This is especially apparent in the foes Harry and Helen encounter in this first episode. The hideous racial stereotypes in the villains of True Lies are at least gone, thank goodness. However, they’ve been replaced by boring French baddies. Spy stories often have such excitingly larger-than-life adversaries, but not here.
True Lies gets off to an incredibly rocky start, to the point that the program’s fate already seems poised to be less like M*A*S*H* and more like the CBS take on Rush Hour in the pantheon of TV shows adapted from movies. Even with the freedom of adapting one of the weakest James Cameron features, this production fails to conjure up anything new or exciting. Beyond exposing older CBS viewers to the White Stripes tune “Icky Thump” for the first time, there isn’t much reason for True Lies to exist.
True Lies premieres on CBS March 1st.