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True Lies Fails to Capture the Charm of the James Cameron Original

In the era of weaponized nostalgia, it’s gone underreported how much of a pipeline there has been from classic film to television. Did you know that there was a “Lethal Weapon” show on FOX for three seasons (and likely would have gone for more if not for on-set drama involving a star)? Or that they tried “The Exorcist” back in 2016? And the number of shows on TV that are remakes of classic hits from “Magnum P.I.” to “Walker” feels like it grows every year. All this to say that it makes perfect sense someone would try to adapt James Cameron’s “True Lies” into a weekly series. Balancing the life of a spy with the life of a suburban family isn’t exactly a groundbreaking template. But that set-up is about all the creators of this new CBS series take from the Arnold Schwarzenegger hit because everything else—including its sense of humor, pacing, characters, and wit—is gone.

Steve Howey (“Shameless”) is wildly miscast as Harry Tasker, an ordinary salesman living in suburbia with his wife Helen (series MVP Ginger Gonzaga) and two kids, Dana (Annabella Didion) and Jake (Lucas Jaye). The premiere episode, airing March 1, cycles through much of the plot of the 1994 movie. Harry’s cover is blown in a way that forces him to reveal to his wife that he’s actually a super-spy, bringing her in on a mission. And so, “True Lies” the show becomes a story about two spies instead of one as Helen gets trained in U.S. intelligence techniques while trying to keep her cover from her kids. It’s a bizarre misstep in that watching Harry balance domesticity and espionage for at least a few episodes might have given the start of the season a bit of a jolt. This "True Lies" doesn’t have much energy when it becomes a show that’s not really about, well, lies told in marriage. 

Much worse than going for something that’s more “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” from the jump is how bafflingly dull the actual spy missions are in each episode. Whether they’re chasing down an assassin from a previous mission gone wrong or going undercover in a casino, the writing of the actual spyhood here is so remarkably boring with cheap graphics and bland mechanics. It doesn’t help that the rest of the crew around Tasker is one of those dull assemblies of non-characters, people who might get a quirky line or two but are just there to push the plot along (Omar Miller deserves better).

All of these structural flaws mean that a lot of the entertainment value of the show falls at the feet of its two leads. Gonzaga is charming in a way that makes it believable that she wouldn’t just panic and run when she found out her husband was a spy. She captures the kind of person who would just see this latest hurdle as another thing to overcome, and she truly holds the show together when it’s working. On the other hand, the often-charming Howey is dull when Harry needs to be charming and suave. And yet he's also not quite there as an average family dad. I know it’s not fair to compare to the original, but Schwarzenegger was convincing both as a family man and an action star, but Howey can’t figure out either. He’s charismatic enough of a performer to work through it and get there eventually, but I wondered if it was intentional to make another bland CBS protagonist to appeal to the widest common denominator.

Watching “True Lies,” I was struck by the same feeling I often get from remakes of ‘80s and ‘90s hits—did anyone involved really like the original enough to understand why it was a hit? Nostalgia has become such a part of the pop culture landscape that it feels like things are getting remade out of contractual obligation more than a passion for the source material. It’s not like “True Lies” is a perfect, untouchable text that can’t be used as a source. But when the result is this bland, someone should be honest about why it exists.

Three episodes were screened for review. "True Lies" premieres today on CBS and will be available on Paramount+. 

Brian Tallerico

Brian Tallerico is the Managing Editor of RogerEbert.com, and also covers television, film, Blu-ray, and video games. He is also a writer for Vulture, The Playlist, The New York Times, and GQ, and the President of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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