CBS brings back 1994 ‘True Lies’ in modern spy drama form

Credit: CBS

Credit: CBS

A married couple are super spies seek work/life balance .

In 1994, Arnold Schwarzenegger at the peak of his box-office power landed the third most popular movie of the year with “True Lies,” an entertaining blend of action, comedy, drama and romance produced by James Cameron.

It seemed ripe to become a franchise, like a twist on James Bond. Yet it never happened. Cameron got wrapped up producing a little film called “Titanic.” Then 9/11 soured Cameron on a “True Lies 2,” and Schwarzenegger became the governor of California. By the 2010s, the original movie was but a distant memory.

Only now, nearly three decades later, CBS has managed to take the “True Lies” conceit and turn it into a weekly spy procedural with Cameron as an executive producer and Schwarzenegger nowhere in sight. (The legendary action star, by the way, is doing his own Netflix series “FUBAR.”) “True Lies” debuts on CBS at 10 p.m. Wednesday, March 1.

The role of Harry Tasker, a super spy for Omega Sector, has been given to Steve Howey (”Reba,” ”Shameless”), who does not remotely resemble or sound like Schwarzenegger. (Then again, who does?). Instead, Howey’s Harry is tall and lithe, possessing a far more down-to-earth, family man persona than Schwarzenegger could muster.

His wife Helen, who was played by Jamie Lee Curtis in the original film, is now portrayed by Ginger Gonzaga (“She-Hulk”). Helen is raising two teens while working as a linguistics professor and is a bit bored with her marriage.

Harry’s spy cover for 17 years has been a computer equipment salesman for the insurance industry. But in the first episode, she suspects his evasions are a cover for an affair. When confronted, he spontaneously takes her on a surprise trip to Paris that also happens to be a work-related job trying to stop illegal arms dealers.

Unfortunately, said bad guys find him at a fancy restaurant while he’s having a dinner date with Helen.

“Helen!” he said, interrupting a serious marital discussion. “There are men here! They’re coming for us.”

Helen is annoyed: “Oh, okay. Are they single? Can they talk about their emotions. Is this a joke?”

Then he breaks into fight mode. She uses martial arts skills she picked up from exercise videos and yoga classes to help fend off the terrorists.

Harry’s cover is blown. The betrayal is serious. But he isn’t cheating on his wife per se. His justification is he’s saving the world and had no choice but to hide it from her. And she buys it.

“I think she finds it kind of sexy that her boring computer salesman husband is an international super spy,” Howey said. “That’s the unspoken dialogue of the show.”

Plus, lucky for Harry, Helen has plenty of spy-friendly skills. She knows multiple languages, be it French, Swahili or Russian. She has yoga and martial arts skills. She isn’t fazed by much. So his bosses hire her as well.

Gonzaga, who has an improv background, worked hard “to insert quirks for Helen, anything to make it not generic. I’m glad they allowed me to do it. It keeps everything fresh.”

“She’s a comedic assassin,” Howey said. “She made me laugh every day. We broke a lot during shooting which is a lot of fun for us. Everyone else hated us. There was such a time crunch.”

One of the funnier side characters is Mrs. Myers (Deneen Tyler), a seemingly boring cat-loving neighbor who watches their clueless kids while they’re killing trained assassins. The joke? She is a trained assassin herself. But she takes tracking their daughter’s possible boyfriends with the same seriousness as tracking down a terrorist with a chemical bomb.

Credit: CBS

Credit: CBS

The show is helmed by Matt Nix, who created the lighthearted action comedy series USA’s “Burn Notice.”

Nix loved the over-the-top nature of the 1994 movie and said he knew how challenging it would be to replicate that on a broadcast TV series budget. “It’s hard for me to get a horse on an elevator,” Nix said. “If you happen to know a hotel in Atlanta that will allow me to put a horse in an elevator, get back to me!”

On top of that, “True Lies” has to be in a different city every episode. In episode two, while Harry is in a motorcycle chase, the streets of downtown Atlanta are used as Madrid. In episode three, the spies are standing on a rooftop supposedly in Zurich, Switzerland, but the Hilton Atlanta is clearly in the background.

Credit: CBS

Credit: CBS

Nix, who worked in Atlanta on a short-run USA drama “Complications” in 2015, said he’s amazed how quickly sites that he knew about before are now condos: “You’re going to get TV producers starting a campaign: ‘Keep warehouses empty! Stop redeveloping train yards!’ We need them!”

He said it helps that a lot of his crew came from a previous CBS show “MacGyver,” which shot in Atlanta from 2016 to 2021 and also featured its cast putting out fires all over the world. “Our location scout knows what places could double for Berlin in Atlanta,” he said. “Before the show started, he took me around showing me Eastern Europe, Spain, Mexico. That’s Morocco. Of course, Morocco in Atlanta is half a block. You have to write to that.”

Nix said the toughest part of doing “True Lies” is balancing the various genre elements. “You can come up with the greatest spy story but it also needs to be romantic and fun and relevant to the relationship of Harry and Helen,” he said. “You can create a fun, sweet and engaging romantic story but it also needs to involve nuclear weapons being stopped in Qatar. You have to hit this trifecta of action, comedy and romance.”

And an acting job like this is not for the faint of heart. Howey said he insisted on doing many of his own stunts season one, firing his own weapons and jumping in and out of vehicles. As a result, he pulled a quadricep and hurt his back. But the worst happened during the season finale: he broke his left ring finger, snapping it all the way back to the knuckle.

“If we have a season two,” Howey said, ‘I’ll get three stunt doubles even if you only need one.”

Gonzaga? “I escaped bone breaks,” she said, adding, “maybe not a mental breakdown.”


“True Lies,” 10 p.m. Wednesdays on CBS, starting March 1, and new episodes available the next day on Paramount+