Tell Me No ‘Lies’: CBS’ Arnie-less spy-fi lacks, budget, spectacle

Crash, Bland, Wallop: CBS' True Lies show can't match the blockbuster on a fraction of the budget...

Helen Tasker married a great guy and had two great kids, but with husband Harry racing off to regularly fulfil his obligations at one of the countries’ best IT specialists, she’s beginning to feel a little ignored. Harry is great… but life is a bit… boring. When her friend suggests Harry’s absences could mean he’s having an affair, she doesn’t want to believe it… but. 

Harry isn’t having an affair, but he is keeping secrets. He’s not the meek and mild IT specialist he pretends to be, but actually a high-level operative whose team often tackle the most dangerous missions. Yet, he’s genuinely committed to his family and has, successfully – so far – managed to balance both aspects of his lives.

However, on a trip to Paris he’s going to learn that keeping Helen in the dark any longer will be a mission impossible.

And that’s only IF they survive the trip…



Though based on the 1991 French film ‘Totale!‘, most will remember the central conceit of a secret agent trying to juggle world peace and an oblivious wife with its 1994 Trans-Atlantic remake… one of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s biggest non-robotic hits, True Lies, a reteaming with his old friend James Cameron and a memorable turn for Jamie Lee Curtis.

Given that the show-runner is Matt Nix, whose previous work includes Burn Notice, where the whole spy motif worked subversively well and the initial chemistry was immediately apparent, you’d expect decent-to-great results here. The one thing you always got with Arnie/Cameron was scale and yet the one thing missing from this tv adaptation is exactly that.

It’s easier to excuse paper-thin plots on primetime if you, at least, have pretty things to see, sparkle and distract. There’s no doubting True Lies ambition – the pilot’s plot takes us from LA to Paris and seeks to recreate some of the beats of the film.  There’s Helen dancing seductively if a little awkwardly around the bedroom, Tasker’s double-life being exposed when Helen’s suspicions he might be having an affair and an erratic helicopter ride with the Taskers as they escape captivity. But it all feels like budget-basket shorthand, economy instead of business class luxury. After stock-footage international backdrops, the car-chases are all close-ups, the explosions merely crackle and fizz and some of the computer graphics look a decade less than anything close to the cutting edge. Even the missions feel they’ve had their best bits edited out.  An alarm trigger is set for anything louder than a human voice (huh?) and when that goes off, the group’s plan to escape through a building full of the highest-security immediately cuts to them having already done so. This isn’t Mission Impossible, it’s Budget Impractical.

True Lies the film was high-concept fun, True Lies the series is low-budget nonsense and it’s impossible to ignore the hard truth that it’s over two decades too late and woefully under-financed to deliver any kind of bang for its buck…

Steve Howey (Shameless) assumes the central Harry asker / Schwarzenegger role and almost immediately becomes a cropper for obvious reasons. The film’s main conceit was how could anyone not think there was something else going on when the ‘salesman’ looks like an Austrian Oak. The whole idea needs that askew balance. You can imagine someone like John Cena could really going to town in the part, but here Howey’s Harry is simply unremarkable in both worlds. Yes, we’re consistently told how amazing he is as an agent (apparently that’s the reason he – and he alone – was allowed to get married and continue his spy career, a luxury not afforded to anyone else on the team) but absolutely nothing Harry does in the pilot looks particularly special or convincing. CBS‘ Harry is clean-cut and charming enough but also somewhat bland and there’s nothing to play off when the spy persona is as equally boring as the cover-story.

Ginger Gonzaga is capable in the role of Helen. In some ways, Helen Tasker has always been something of thankless role, the straight person to the punchline, the character carrying the idiot-box and needing to be mostly oblivious to obvious clues until all hell eventually breaks loose and she has to ‘woman-up’. Despite high degrees of typically 90s’ sexism and casual misogyny that are embarrassing to watch if you see the movie now, Curtis made Helen as engaging as she could as the butt of the joke and the damsel who has to be less distressed and more supportive of her man once they’re both in actual danger. But thirty years later, that’s just not going to fly and the CBS series gives us Ginger Gonzaga as a Helen who is just as oblivious (initially) but feels more like a pissed off Pilates-honed housewife than Jamie Lee Curtis more dutiful version.  The joke is that Helen is better at languages than Harry (she’s a linguistics teacher) and can even hold her own in a fight (Yoga-training apparently helps her pin down an assailant).  But the show plays lip-service to the modernity factor and never wants her too sassy or too self-sufficient merely less stereotypical and less reliant… and so it always feels like she’s still a supporting player rather than a co-lead. And that’s a real shame because with better writing, this Helen – dragged kicking and screaming into the world of spies and lies and cover-stories – could actually have been the strong pivot that the whole series needed after over a decade of attempts to make it work as a testosterone triumph on a network. In fact, a guy finding his wife was an agent could have been an even better spin…

There must have been a temptation to keep the marital deceit angle going longer and perhaps play into another aspect of the film – Helen being charmed by a conman who’s just pretending to be a spy to get her into bed and accidentally finding out about her husband’s real job. (In the movie that was another Cameron regular, the late Bill Paxton). But clearly the remit was to speed through the budget-version of the film’s best bits and have the series become a kind of epilogue or sequel. But where does it go from here? Helen now has a better teaching job /cover and a hard training regime ahead of her (as well as not telling the Traskers’ kids that they’re mom and dad are saving the world – which has a been-there Spy Kids vibe). That leaves us with two options. That this becomes more of a Mr. and Mrs. Smith scenario with a husband/wife team going on missions together or having to contort a whole range of stories where Helen is the less-well-trained liability-factor who discovers other useful talents to help her hubby and his team and still manages to make the family roast. Outside of a sit-com format, both ways seem difficult to stretch out to a series format without heading firmly into generic, on-a-budget action set pieces (that are arguably being done better on almost every other series I can think of) and losing the handful of viewers who tuned in for the brand-name and then bailed in disappointment.

The supporting cast is populated by even less defined characters. Beyond best-friend Gib (Omar Miller stepping in for the Tom Arnold computer-wiz side-kick) you’d be hard-pressed to pick the other team-members out of a line-up. Beverly D’Angelo (whom I thought for the briefest second was another Cameron collaborator, Linda Hamilton) takes the boss role that was essentially essayed by Charlton Heston in the film, but most of her work could have been done in a day or over the phone.

True Lies the film was high-concept fun, True Lies the series is low-budget nonsense and it’s impossible to ignore the hard truth that it’s over two decades too late and woefully under-financed to deliver any kind of bang for its buck.


'True Lies - Pilot'  (Television review)
'True Lies - Pilot' (Television review)
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