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True Lies Might Be an Action Series, But It’s Also a Great Family Sitcom

The CBS reboot understands what made the movie a hit, then goes deeper.
  • Steve Howey and Ginger Gonzaga in True Lies (Photo: Jace Downs/CBS)
    Steve Howey and Ginger Gonzaga in True Lies (Photo: Jace Downs/CBS)

    Despite all the assassination attempts and bioterror weapons, True Lies might be the season’s best family sitcom. Based on the 1994 action flick starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jamie Lee Curtis, the CBS series adaptation keeps the basic premise about a spy trying to hide his top-secret job from his wife, but it ratchets up the domestic comedy. Even when bombs are exploding and bullets are flying, there’s always time for a heated debate about plumbing repair or whether the kids are old enough to date. That decision — to prioritize home-life jokes over fights and espionage — gives the show a clear and charming point of view. It’s not only entertaining and incredibly well acted, but also thoughtful about what it takes to make a marriage work.

    And while series creator Matt Nix certainly deserves credit for helming such a pleasurable show, the entire enterprise works because of stars Steve Howey and Ginger Gonzaga. As Harry Tasker, the most skilled agent in the top secret Omega Sector, Howey blends his matinee-idol handsomeness with a rubber-faced goofiness that makes him seem like the Dick Van Dyke of spycraft. He’s great at looking confused or even a little hurt when bad guys are rude to him, and that emotional openness plays even better when he’s with his wife Helen (Gonzaga). Whether they’re fighting or flirting, he radiates a puppy-dog love for her that’s incredibly sweet. It also validates the idea that Harry has been forcing Omega Sector to let him stay married to a civilian for almost 20 years. Howey lets us see that being with Helen makes Harry happy, and it’s easy to imagine the moment he decided being a suburban family man was just as important as saving the world.

    Gonzaga, meanwhile, could’ve dropped into the series from a classic Hollywood comedy like Singin’ in the Rain. She expertly rides the line between whip-smart banter and flustered surprise, and it’s a joy to watch her fast-talk her way through stressful situations. In the pilot episode, when she winds up in the middle of a fight between Harry and some murderous goons, she looks terrified, but she instinctively punches one of the bad guys in the face. Later, she tells Harry she learned that from doing exercise videos, and when Harry disapprovingly asks why she’s punching things during a workout, she shouts, “It relieves stress!” With that one line, Gonzaga communicates both Helen’s fear that she almost died and her exasperation that her husband is questioning her fitness regimen. That’s a complex bit, but Gonzaga makes it seem so natural that we instantly know Helen can match her secret agent husband.

    Elsewhere, it’s clear that Helen loves Harry as much as he loves her, and their chemistry together is electrifying. That’s good, because by the end of the pilot, Helen gets recruited into Omega Sector herself. The next two episodes, which were screened for critics, filter the Taskers’ everyday problems through the lens of their newly shared worklife. In one storyline, they both get jealous when they meet the other’s ex, which lets Howey and Gonzaga show their skill with fights that end in sexy forgiveness. In another, Helen forces Harry to call home and get Omega Sector to spy on their teenage daughter, who may or may not be hanging out with an older boy. Their recognizable parental anxiety is funnier because they interrupt a mission to make the call.

    And the agent they contact, Mrs. Myers (Deneen Tyler), just happens to be a trained assassin disguised as the eccentric cat lady next door. In her first big scene, she’s not firing a missile launcher or cracking a safe. She’s sitting with the Tasker children, explaining that her cat, Socks 2, may have been the product of feline infidelity. The show surrounds Helen and Harry with this kind of foolishness, which makes the episodes even easier to enjoy. When Harry’s co-worker Gib (Omar Miller) peppers his field work with commentary about how to grill burgers, or when Helen bonds with a hitman (played by Matthew Lillard) about their shared love of snacks, the series promises that the good times will never be interrupted by anything too serious. It tells viewers to sit back and relax, because the action is just a breezy backdrop for the real business of Harry and Helen’s relationship.

    Back in the ’90s, action movies like True Lies made the same promise: Despite the violence, they sold themselves as light entertainments, where stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger or Will Smith could be counted on to survive the picture and make us laugh in the process. The True Lies series honors that tradition and promises to deepen it. As it tells stories across weekly installments — instead of a single, two-hour film — it can apply its quirky worldview to many aspects of modern marriage. It can sort through the tensions of working parents trying to raise kids and stay connected without giving up on careers they love, and it can use a few fist fights and good jokes to make those dilemmas feel like fun.

    True Lies premieres Wednesday, March 1 at 10:00 PM ET on CBS. New episodes Wednesdays. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Mark Blankenship has been writing about arts and culture for twenty years, with bylines in The New York Times, Variety, Vulture, Fortune, and many others. You can hear him on the pop music podcast Mark and Sarah Talk About Songs.

    TOPICS: True Lies, CBS, Deneen Tyler, Ginger Gonzaga, Matthew Lillard, Matt Nix, Omar Miller, Steve Howey