We’ve had a busy few days of cable drama premieres, haven’t we?
Unfortunately, we’ve also had a bunch of shows where I tuned in for the premiere for review purposes, but probably won’t tune back in for subsequent episodes. Or maybe that’s not right. I’ll watch another episode of “Haven,” simply because the first episode was so ill-formed and nebulous. And I’ve already watched a second episode of “Rizzoli & Isles” because TNT was nice enough to send it out. “The Glades”? A&E may be excited about the ratings, but I wasn’t excited enough to return to that imaginary Florida setting unless I get to take a vacation there. [Yes, I would gladly take a vacation in an alligator-infested, lazily imagined Florida town.]
So when I just tweeted, “In short: ‘Covert Affairs’ is the best new show of the past seven days. By far!” Well… It’s true. I can’t promise you that I’m not damning “Covert Affairs” with faint praise and I can’t begin to guess how much better “Covert Affairs” seemed when watched in immediate proximity to “Haven,” “Rizzoli & Isles” and “The Glades.”
But it’s a bit more than that. “Covert Affairs” is fun, easy-going, fast-moving and, of the four shows that have launched in the past week, it’s the only one where I can say I’m looking forward to watching a second episode.
Then again, it’s also devotedly derivative, structurally scattered and I have some issues with the main character in conception and execution. That’s why 140 character reviews sometimes lack in nuance.
A longer review after the break…
Really, I want to write this review of “Covert Affairs” because I want to pay a little tribute to Tim Matheson.
You know him as Eric Stratton from “Animal House,” or for his Emmy nominated stint on “The West Wing” or from the more than 100 TV shows and movies he’s acted in, dating back literally to “Leave It to Beaver.” But more and more, I’ve grown to appreciate Matheson as a stellar TV director who has, in particular, become one of the most reliable guardians of USA Network’s in-house style, helming episodes of “Psych,” “Burn Notice” and now both “White Collar” and the series premiere of “Covert Affairs.”
So much of why “Covert Affairs” works stems from Matheson’s pitch-perfect grasp of the way a USA Network show is supposed to look and feel. He knows the bright lighting, snappy editing and breezy tone by heart and he knows the tenor of a USA acting performance, since he’s appeared on many of the network’s shows. “Covert Affairs” is yet another assured extension of the USA brand — compare it to the stumbles TNT and Syfy had with their own new shows this week — continuing an “If you like one of our shows, you’ll probably like all of our shows” unity that few cable networks can match. In this instance, Matheson’s pilot direction plays a key role.
“Covert Affairs” was written by Matt Corman and Chris Ord and focuses on Annie Walker (Piper Perabo), a CIA trainee who skips the end of her preparation and gets called up to the Big Time when a case arises that requires her particular skill-set — that would be language aptitude and ability to pass for a high-class call girl. Soon, she’s getting an education on CIA etiquette and protocol from recently blinded military intelligence agent Auggie (Christopher Gorham), icy new boss Joan (Kari Matchette) and Arthur (Peter Gallagher), head of the CIA’s Department of Clandestine Services.
It turns out that Annie has more going for her than just her gifts with Russian and a comfort level in high heels, but the mythology of “Covert Affairs” probably shouldn’t be spoiled, even if it’s the least interesting part of the show.
TV and movies have a storied past with young intelligence operatives recruited for reasons as flimsy as the ones that earn Annie her stripes and if you’ve seen “Alias” — Perabo even begins to resemble a somewhat less dimpled Jennifer Garner at points — or any of the “Nikita” incarnations, you can practically write this character’s initiation yourself. It’s a vaguely sexist archetype made more problematic when you have the character repeatedly justifying her motivates for joining the CIA in the first place, a back-story that distinctly lessens the character and adds nothing that couldn’t have been gained from a character who joined the CIA because — God forbid — she’s patriotic and wanted to serve her country. In the pilot, Corman and Ord haven’t quite decided if Annie keeps telling people things they probably already know because she’s supposed to be annoying or because she’s in a position where she constantly needs to over-prove herself.
If it’s the latter, Perabo’s performance doesn’t quite have the nuance to keep the trait likable, but she’s still solid enough for you not to resent that all of the characters around her are more interesting. Or maybe I just appreciate a character who can drop a reference to the Baltimore Colts leaving the city in the dead of night? There’s a little too much effort to humiliate Annie, having her bump into things and get embarrassed or flustered, the kind of indignities Sydney Bristow rarely had to suffer.
Perabo has fine chemistry with Gorham, who admirably resists full-on Ray Charles-ing his character. He isn’t necessarily subtle, but he avoids the over-acting traps that usually come from letting an actor go to town with a blind character. It’s also a nice change of pace from Gorham’s last regular TV gig on CBS’ “Harper’s Island.” I can’t quite tell if we’re supposed to eventually root for Auggie and Annie to hook up, but it’s a relationship that was made for fan-fic.
The relationship I personally was more interested in focused on Arthur and Joan, both ranking CIA officials and also married. Auggie mentions that agents are encouraged to date within the Agency because it eases the vetting process and while I don’t have a clue whether or not that’s actually the case, I love the idea of a couple sorting out general marital difficulties within the already paranoid confines of the CIA. Peter Gallagher and Matchett, while not exactly “old,” also have enough gravitas to keep “Covert Affairs” from feeling like the kiddie pool version of a spy show (though that’s addressed as well). Unfortunately, they also create one of those situations where you find yourself possibly preferring the Gallagher-Matchett version of “Covert Affairs” to the bubblier Perabo-Gorham version and even in an extra-long pilot, it’s hard to service both stories.
And it’s even harder to service those stories, while also giving any value to having an actress as terrific as Anne Dudek playing Perabo’s sister, who thinks Annie works for the Smithsonian. In a show of familiar characters Dudek’s is the most familiar and the most predictably dead-ended. The automatic assumption is that there will be more to Dudek’s character (Serbian spy, perhaps?), though I don’t have any trouble understanding why the “House,” “Big Love” and “Mad Men” actress would want a low-impact role in which she gets to be contemporary, sweet and pretty.
Returning to my bottom line, “Covert Affairs” is the week’s new cable drama that seems most sure of what it wants to be, even if what it wants to be is just “Alias” through a USA prism and devoid of that pesky Milo Rambaldi and his prophecies. Is Perabo quite Jennifer Garner? No. Am I a bit worried about the way the show is treating Annie and her frivolous femininity? Yes. But that’s a concern for a different essay and one that I’ll maybe revisit after a second or third episode.
For now? “Covert Affairs” feels like a USA show and that’s enough for a recommendation for now.
“Covert Affairs” premieres at 10 p.m. on USA on Tuesday, July 13.