COVERT AFFAIRS is another entry in USA’s highly successful action/adventure lineup, and while it shares the spy-thriller niche with BURN NOTICE, it does not have nearly as much fun with the concept as the South Beach sizzler does. In fact, CA may take its CIA missions as seriously as the real covert-ops agency.
Piper Perabo plays Annie Walker, a CIA trainee plucked out of classes a few weeks early for a vital Agency mission. Annie’s unique qualifications for the operation were two-fold: She could speak Russian, and she could pass for a hooker. Her qualifications to be the central character of a new series: She’s inexperienced, cute and spunky, with a strong sense of initiative.
As always happens with this sort of arrangement, the mission goes down twisted – the man Annie was supposed to get information from was murdered right in front of her – and there was more to it than meets the eye. In fact, a betting person would place a wager on there being layers underneath the layers. It may not all make perfect sense, but it is entertaining to watch. Even Annie’s qualifications for the mission proved to be more than meets the eye. At the very end of the story, we find discover that even Annie doesn’t know the real reason she was recruited: to smoke out some kind of super-operative, called Ben Mercer (Eion Bailey). Turns out that Ben befriended Annie on a trip to Sri Lanka and broke her heart when he disappeared one morning, leaving only a cryptic note.
The ostensible mystery of the pilot – who killed Annie’s contact and will he finish the job by icing her – was not too hard to figure out. The only justification for the director not showing the villain’s face was because he was somebody viewers were supposed to recognize. The Law of Conservation of Casting of Pilots states that the-powers-that-be do not have a lot of extra money to throw around, so actors paid to say lines usually serve a purpose. So that smarmy guy who chatted up Annie in the hotel lobby – offering to fetch her a waiter – had to be somebody of significance.
Perabo did not have a lot of time to craft a whole person out of an underwritten character. TPTB had to devote a lot of time to building her world, so there was not a lot of room left for sketching in her personality. Viewers know she was at the top of her class in driving (which came in handy during the requisite car chase), and was first to leap out of a plane. And we also know that Joan (Kari Matchett) only picked Annie for this mission to dangle her in view of Mercer We know she’s vulnerable because she still moons over Sri Lanka, and she was upset over the idea of a patsy being murdered over useless decoy intel. Her most dominating character trait is supposed to be her faculty with languages, and yet she gets a key break in the case by violating protocol to consult one of her old professors about a word. In other words, she did something any non-polyglot could have done: ask for help. That had the effect of diminishing her. Perabo is a little too Hollywood pretty to be entirely believable, but her glamour was played down – even in the scenes when she was supposed to be a call girl. She is not trying to coast on any Coyote Ugly nudge-nudge, wink-wink.
TV has a distinguished recent history of strong female characters anchoring action series, and if Annie Walker hopes to take her place alongside ALIAS’ Sydney Bristow, VERONICA MARS’ Veronica, and BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER’s Buffy Summers, Perabo has to be given the chance to fill in her character. We need to see inner strength, not just a roundhouse kick. Annie suffered through a disastrous blind date in the pilot – let’s discover why such a pretty woman needs to be set up by her sister. Is it because she’s so dedicated to the agency, or because she’s still moping over Ben? We know what Sydney’s answer would be.
I am willing to go along with the ride for a few weeks and see if this series lives up to its potential. So far, COVERT AFFAIRS has not really shown viewers much we have not already seen — beyond Christopher Gorham‘s blind agent, Auggie — but it sorely needs to. I choose to believe the hotel-room siege was an homage to La Femme Nikita, not a ripoff. Here’s hoping CA recovers from pilotis and thrives as a series with a compelling, strong lead.