‘True Lies’ Review: Generic Spy Thriller No Intrigue, No Lies

‘True Lies’ Review: Generic Spy Thriller No Intrigue, No Lies

When James Cameron’s “True Lies” hit theaters in 1994, the story of a muscly spy (Arnold Schwarzenegger) moonlighting as a computer salesman while his bored wife (Jamie Lee Curtis) found secretive ways to pursue purpose was fun, fresh and provocative. Fast-forward nearly 30 years, and many of the film’s tropes and stereotypes just don’t hold up.

So when it came to adapting the film into a TV show, changes were necessary. Unfortunately, in updating the material, showrunner Matt Nix failed to keep the essence of what made the movie so fun in the first place: the lies between a husband and wife.

Like the film, the TV show centers on a spy named Harry (Steve Howey). His wife, Helen (Ginger Gonzaga), and their two teens believe him to be a dull computer salesman with way too many business trips under his belt and no sense of adventure. Helen, a linguistics teacher, is bored with her routine life and craves excitement in between her kickboxing and yoga classes.

She believes her marriage is in a rut until her friend wonders whether the extended trips and secretive phone calls could be an affair. Cue Harry’s guilt and an invitation for his wife to join him on his next work trip, in Paris.

That’s where the marital tension ends and the spy drama begins. Within 26 minutes of the first episode, Harry’s cover is blown and Helen is thrust into his life as a spy. Not only that, but the fighting skills she’s acquired through her workout videos, coupled with her knack for languages, leads Harry’s boss (Beverly D’Angelo) to recruit her onto the team by episode’s end. In the world of action-dramedies, it’s always a good idea to suspend disbelief.

For example, it’s refreshing to see a grown woman go straight to her husband and ask whether he’s having an affair. However, it’s also hard to believe she’d make a great spy when she’s failedto go through his phone or check his pocket for receipts. As for Harry, his wife’s immediate integration into his work life doesn’t force him to address that he’s been gaslighting her for the past two decades — good intentions or otherwise.

Speaking of that work. While it was necessary to update Helen into a more savvy wife with her own skills and knowledge, bringing her into the fold so quickly is also the show’s biggest mistake. It removes the tension between husband and wife, while also eliminating the title’s promised lies. As a result, there is a lack of passion between the pair. What makes them tick as a couple? How was she able to forgive him so quickly? Are they not concerned about something happening to them on the job, potentially orphaning their children? Is there lingering resentment on either side?

Throughout the first three episodes there are quick references to the couple’s backstory, but nothing solid to help understand their motives or quirks. It’s a very surface-level look at a pair you’re supposed to root for and relate to as they work together to take down the bad guys.  

After screening thoseepisodes, taking down the bad guys while dealing with routine household chores and raising kids does seem to be the gist of the series. Sure, there are occasional film Easter eggs, if you’ve even watched it recently, like the famous helicopter stunt and the scene in which Harold and Helen are tied up to chairs. There are also fun action sequences and fish-out-of-water setups as Helen learns the ropes. But this “True Lies” sits tonally among CBS’ other primetime procedurals that feature teams working together to eliminate threats. Except here, two of the members happen to be married, and they bicker at work every week.

In other words, it’s fine — but there’s nothing new. If that’s the kind of show you’re looking for, then you’ll want to tune in. Howey is charming enough, and Gonzaga dives into the role with aplomb; you get the sense there’s little she isn’t willing to try. It makes her the most watchable part of any scene, as she perfects that balance between action and comedy.

The scenes are slick, the action is fast and the outcomes are predictable. Sometimes, that’s exactly what you want from your weeknight watch. But if you’re expecting a deeper story, ongoing tension or layered characters, you may want to keep flipping.

“True Lies” debuts Wednesday, March 1 at 10 p.m. ET on CBS.