USA has discovered the formula for a hit drama series: take a set-up for a procedural that another network would treat as serious and make it breezy, light and fun. So far USA has given us lighthearted shows where people die on a regular basis about a fired spy (‘Burn Notice‘), a fake psychic detective (‘Psych‘), and a master forger (‘White Collar‘). The new series ‘Covert Affairs,‘ which premieres Tuesday July 13th after ‘White Collar’ is the lighthearted version of ‘Alias.‘ It’s ‘La Femme Nikita‘ meets ‘Eat, Pray, Love‘ with Annie Walker (Piper Perabo) as a newly minted CIA agent who finds herself surrounded by quirky characters as she uses her superior language skills and her good looks to crack cases, all the while pining for the mysterious, sexy boyfriend, Ben (Eion Bailey), that she met on an extended vacation who pulled a disappearing act after three weeks. Perabo revealed in a conference call that Ben is up to his neck in the spy game.”As I’ve seen more of the Ben Mercer character, it’s gotten muddier about whose side he’s on. Somebody asked me the other day if we’re going to find out who he is by the end of this season, and even I don’t know that.”
Annie, despite her gifts for foreign languages and talking her way out of bad situations, seems too much like an escapee from a chick-lit novel to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the original, quirky protagonists of some of the other USA series. But she is perky and funny. It’s easy to root for her. More interesting are the supporting characters. Auggie (Christopher Gorham) is a blind tech guru, who is a huge flirt and Annie’s instant partner in creative crime solving. Gorham’s funny take on his character that avoids the cliched portrayals of blindness makes Auggie a potential breakout character. In a conference call, Gorham explained that, for now, Annie and Auggie’s partnership will remain platonic. “Where their relationship starts off, Auggie’s slept with a lot of the women at the Agency. And so I think when they first met, like he kind of assumes that they’re going to hookup. But the relationship with her for some reason, quickly moves past the casual hookup and into a real friendship. And so you know, what comes out of that friendship I think is potentially a long-term storyline.”
Annie’s bosses are a hilarious estranged husband and wife, Joan (Kari Matchett) and Arthur (Peter Gallagher, great as the anti-Sandy Cohen) who use CIA resources to investigate each other. According to Gorham, “Gallagher is technically a guest, he’s recurring. But I mean, couldn’t be more valuable to the show. He’s amazing and we all love him dearly.”
The show will also benefit from a lot of A-list guest stars. ‘Heroes‘ Sendhil Ramamurthy shows up in the second episode as a CIA agent. Eriq LaSalle and Odehd Fehr also have filmed appearances. Said Perabo, “Oded Fehr plays an Israeli spy from the Mossad. And his action film background made him kind of unparalleled as someone to work with and come in as a guest-star. And Eriq La Salle was one in a recent episode. And then we just finished an episode with Anna Camp.”
This is a fantastical take on CIA life. The fictional Domestic Protection Division has a Starbucks in the lobby. There is also a truly bizarre product placement for Listerine Breath Strips that suggests they are useful for fooling a fingerprint scanner. ‘Covert Affairs’ does use a couple of interesting real life tidbits about the CIA: due to a post 9/11 recruiting drive, 50% of CIA agents have five years or less experience and the CIA encourages its employees to date within the agency because it eliminates the difficulties of having to live a double life. Valerie Plame Wilson, the CIA clandestine agent whose cover was blown by a newspaper columnist, served as a technical adviser on the pilot, so perhaps the series is more realistic than it appears. The CIA is top secret after all, so it’s impossible to say.
The case in the pilot is easy enough to figure out that I was three steps ahead of Annie, and I’m terrible at solving mysteries. But that’s not the point. This show, like the rest of the USA dramas is pure escapism. It makes risking your life for a covert government agency that may not always be on the side of the good guys seem like a fun romp. I may not have fallen in love with Annie, but I’d gladly trade lives with her. I will risk the ire of J.J. Abrams fans by saying I found it more entertaining then the convoluted ‘Alias‘ which, in my opinion, took itself way too seriously. I am not sure if the show will prove as popular as ‘Burn Notice’ or ‘White Collar,’ but it is great to see a woman front and center in the testosterone heavy world of USA procedurals.