Back in February, Whiskey Cavalier premiered with a bang, particularly after an Academy Awards night of heavy promotion for the series that featured that now infamous commercial about the exploding tampon. (Just to be clear, that exploding tampon and the other series-specific commercials on this night actually came into play in the series premiere of Whiskey Cavalier; it wasn’t just ABC’s promo department guessing what might work to promote the show.) From the promotion to the title, the spy dramedy was basically made to be the butt of jokes. But a funny thing happened on the way to Whiskey Cavalier: It got the joke. And it was actually good.
Of course, there’s always a question of what “good” is on television when a show doesn’t fall under the umbrella of “prestige television,” which is honestly one of the downsides of this Second Golden Age of Television and the all-encompassing Peak TV. Now, for a show to truly be considered “good,” it has to either be undeniable (a Mad Men or a Breaking Bad or a The Americans, if you will) or so immensely popular it also can’t be denied (a Game of Thrones or, honestly, to a lesser extent, The Walking Dead). Niche shows like Legends of Tomorrow (which works because it bucks modern television norms altogether) or The Good Fight (which takes the prestige television template and gets it high on mushrooms) are able to slip through the cracks as a result of this, but even when you sing their praises, they remain niche for one reason (being the balls out redheaded stepchild—that had a rough start—of The CW’s superhero series) or another (CBS All Access… and the “high on mushrooms” thing). I’m not saying Whiskey Cavalier was ever as good as Legends of Tomorrow or The Good Fight on its best day, but it also will never even have the chance to be that or even the best version of itself. This is a point that’s also made even more frustrating by the fact that ABC gave the Whiskey Cavalier audience (and cast and crew) a glimmer of hope for renewal before completely ripping it away for good.
Whiskey Cavalier fell firmly into the designation of one of my particular favorite brands of genre television: the procedural that f*cks. Currently, the series that most notably fits that bill is Blindspot, but it’s a genre that also includes Lucifer (which just further proved its classification through its fourth season on Netflix) and past ICYMI series like Limitless and Hooten & the Lady. Another way to say it is “this ain’t your mama’s procedural,” but you know what? Part of the “procedural that f*cks” classification comes from the fact that the first season is at least one that your mom is totally all about, before it goes full-tilt insanity (in the best way possible). Whiskey Cavalier definitely had that, especially in the case of Scott Foley—a man moms and daughters alike can rely on, from Felicity to Scandal—in the titular role. (Of note, “Whiskey Cavalier” referred to his codename, as the character’s real name was actually Will Chase. Lauren Cohan’s Frankie Trowbridge had the nickname “Fiery Tribune.” My codename would be “Locust Freefall,” in case you were wondering.)
In a post-Cougar Town world, a Bill Lawrence show with a terrible title shouldn’t be something to hold against it, even though Bill Lawrence probably should have known better. To be fair, the number of times I had to explain to people that Whiskey Cavalier was, in fact, a Bill Lawrence show in the first place given its hour-long format made it an even tougher sell than the title alone. The series was originally supposed to be about Scott Foley’s Will Chase (again, the titular “Whiskey Cavalier”) as the central character until Lauren Cohan came around and stole the show, which absolutely checks out. While—like Cougar Town—the terribleness of the name ultimately added to the series’ appeal and charm in a bizarre way, it also added to the mountain of crap it had to climb towards success. (Maybe the only good television series title is Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and even then, it doesn’t list every other demon she was forced to slay.) While Cougar Town’s title issue was due to the fact that the series quickly became about something else entirely (adults drinking wine in a cul-de-sac), Whiskey Cavalier’s title issue was something that seemingly should have been fixed upon casting Cohan, before they even started promoting the series. Especially since they promoted the series with Foley and Cohan as equal leads, though Foley was in the producer position and Cohan was surprisingly not (a point that most likely would have been changed with a second season).
But Whiskey Cavalier’s strength wasn’t just in its co-leads, which is another reason why it’s so surprising it didn’t last. You don’t just easily get an ensemble cast of heavy hitters like this one. Beyond Foley and Cohan—really the show should have just been renamed Fiery Tribune—it was made up of a team of supporting actors who have also proven (quite literally) they can hold their own as leads of their own series: Ana Ortiz (who, post-Ugly Betty, led Devious Maids), Josh Hopkins (another Bill Lawrence alum with Cougar Town, as well as his past work on Quantico), and Tyler James Williams (now proving his immense worth as an adult comedic actor post-Everybody Hates Chris,). The only “unknown” in the main cast was Vir Das, and that was only in terms of his American career; his Bollywood and stand-up career in India would suggest otherwise. Plus, Dylan Walsh as a recurring character and the Big Bad of the series gives the performance every Nip/Tuck obsessive who knew Sean McNamara was the real dick in McNamara/Troy knew he had in him all along. (Bonus points if you knew it because you’re one of the 10 people who saw that remake of The Stepfather.)
The caliber of the cast and writing team behind Whiskey Cavalier suggested it couldn’t fail, which is honestly perhaps the biggest assumption to have about any form of television these days. With the title—with or without knowing the reasoning behind it—the concept of taking the series seriously was already an issue, but there was also a question from general viewers of what the series was and who it was for. With a cast able to balance a necessary blend of comedy and drama (as well as action), Whiskey Cavalier also leaned into absurdity, while managing to make its characters ones to relate to and root for. This is unsurprising given that Dave Hemingson (Don’t Trust the B in Apartment 23) and Bill Lawrence (Scrubs) were at the helm. Should it have taken that absurdist tone? To challenge that is to challenge the very point of it all.
Whiskey Cavalier also filled a couple of very specific voids in television, starting with the will-they-won’t-they procedural box, the stuff of Bones or Castle or the aforementioned Lucifer. Of course, the will-they-won’t-they concept in these types of shows all ultimately heads toward “they will,” for better or worse. Whiskey Cavalier didn’t just accept that inevitability, it dangled it in front of its audience with every episode from the pilot, knowingly playing into audience expectations. This is despite giving Will a delightful love interest in the form of the always charming Ophelia Lovibond’s Emma, someone who fit the vibe of the series and didn’t rock the boat of “being in the way” of Will/Frankie because, again, come on—we know they will. Even better, Whiskey Cavalier loved to hit the will-they-won’t-they trope beats hard and fast. While there won’t be more of the series past a first season, audiences can rest easy given the amount of fake marriage missions and accidental romantic fireside heart-to-hearts. Honestly, before the season even hits the halfway mark, Will and Frankie pretty much acknowledge their feelings for each other, because, come on—you know they do. In a lot of ways, the first season of Whiskey Cavalier thankfully exists to cover seasons of tropes, which is part of why it would have been fascinating to see what at least one future season would have done after the fact. That’s the major appeal of my beloved procedurals that f*ck if they even get past their own strange first seasons.
The other void that Whiskey Cavalier filled is that of a good spy television series. The Americans, as great as it was, isn’t remembered because of its brilliance as a spy series, but as a character study. Blindspot is closer to this concept—and I have praised it as a spy series—but while it’s branched out more in terms of traveling the world these past couple of seasons, it still primarily stays domestic. Killing Eve could have filled this slot, but it’s understandably more about the cat and mouse chase between Eve and Villanelle than actual spycraft, especially in Season Two. Quantico was, honestly, too convoluted, and a show like Condor is too close to home. But Whiskey Cavalier fell more in line with shows like Chuck (especially in terms of its humor) and Alias (in terms of its big picture), contemporary spy series that you just don’t see anymore. Spy stuff with cool spy gadgets—the exploding tampon was only the tip of the iceberg—is what Whiskey Cavalier promised and provided in this underserved genre.
One of the more interesting things about Whiskey Cavalier is that, for as light and breezy as it was—it easily could have fit in during USA Network’s Characters Welcome era of television—the death count was especially high. Like, comically high. It was especially shocking (and strangely funny) because many of these deaths were so intentionally and matter-of-factly brutal. That was honestly the most bizarre aspect of the series, even more than the decision to keep the title as Whiskey Cavalier. It leaned into realism, but in a series that didn’t need to or try to be realistic. But, that atonal aspect honestly just added to the series’ charm, despite being one of the least talked about parts of the show.
Whiskey Cavalier will probably be part of punchlines for ridiculously-named series for years, but it will remain memorable to those who watched it for plenty of other reasons. Its title aside, anyone who liked Chuck and/or Psych, anyone who found something missing in the spy genre post-Alias—on television, would like Whiskey Cavalier. It dealt in tropes, but that’s because it was just as in on the joke as its audience.
Despite her mother’s wishes, LaToya Ferguson is a writer living in Los Angeles. If you want to talk The WB’s image campaigns circa 1999-2003, LaToya’s your girl. Her writing has been featured in The A.V. Club, Indiewire, Entertainment Weekly, Complex, Consequence of Sound, and Flavorwire, among other publications. You can find her tweets about TV shows, movies, and music you completely forgot about @lafergs;.