COVERT AFFAIRS 2.1: Begin the Begin

Last summer’s guiltiest pleasure for me was USA’s COVERT AFFAIRS, a sort of ALIAS-lite that featured likeable tyro CIA agent Annie Walker, played by Piper Perabo (of Coyote Ugly and Lost and Delirious fame). Your appreciation for COVERT AFFAIRS pretty much depended on your appreciation of Annie/Piper as she undertook the mission of the week, bungled it, and then saved the day through desperation, pluck and charm. Annie did not rely on sex appeal to the same degree as Jennifer Garner’s Sydney Bristow on ALIAS, but Piper can rock a bikini with the best of them when she must. My tolerance for Perabo is pretty high; your mileage may vary. (Don’t judge me; WHITE COLLAR coasts on fans hypnotized by Matt Bomer.) So I am happy this frothy series is back.

Annie had a mysterious love interest, one Ben Mercer (Eion Bailey, of Band of Brothers), who just happened to be a former CIA operative. Or maybe he still was on the payroll; nobody could really tell. And it sort of didn’t matter, because Annie was also drawn into the orbit of the charismatic Auggie (Christopher Gorham), a fast-talking/quicker-thinking CIA agent who just happened to be blind.

Last season ended with Ben shot in Sri Lanka, and this season’s opener wasted little time revealing that he survived, and was once again frolicking on a beach with a bikini-clad Annie – albeit from a wheelchair. But in no time assassins appeared and tried to finish the job, and season two was off and running. Literally. Viewers quickly learned that little has changed: Ben and fellow pretty-boy Jai (Sendhil Ramamurthy) still glower at each other; Annie’s sister Danielle (Anne Dudek) is still clueless about her secret-agent sis; and Auggie is still cool. Joan (Kari Matchett) continued to soften, to the point where she seemed to be straining a bit to be bitchy when assigning Annie to handle Nadia, an Estonian tennis player who has been informing on the Russians. While Annie was busy with work, Ben disappeared from the military hospital without a trace, as usual. And, also as usual, the inexperienced Annie made her assignment more of an adventure than it had to be. She broke protocol and bent rules and made mistakes (like confusing popping champagne corks for gunshots), but in the end (pretty much) figured out what was really happening (a plot to kill Nadia’s big-wig Russian beau while he was in the USA) and (all together now) saved the day.

In addition to easing viewers back into Annie’s world, this story also set up subplots for the rest of the season, including a mysterious break-in at Danielle’s place apparently perpetrated by a couple of teenagers, and Arthur’s (Peter Gallagher) legal troubles. I could not remember exactly what political shenanigans had Arthur tangled in knots, and the show declined to recap for viewers who don’t have an app for decoding Washington insider woes. But at least Joan is on his side, and their troubled marriage seems stable, for now. And then there’s the Ben situation. Apparently he’s going to spend the season as The Spy Who Won’t Come In From the Cold once again. But there are hints that Annie may be able to vent to Joan about it. Giving her a confidant is a good move, but I think a fellow operative would make a better gal pal than her boss. Still, Joan gave her some good, practical advice: Treat Ben as a high-risk asset instead of a boyfriend. Ben’s mystery factor was upped when Arthur offered to welcome him back as an off-the-books agent. Ben wanted to contact Annie, but Arthur refused, and so Ben’s status is back to being…um, murky. I think Auggie summed it up when he told Annie, “We work at a job with a lot of ‘I don’t knows.’ ”

While still breezy (The “lie-detector test” sequence was a cute way to get exposition out of the way!), this episode felt a little more targeted; like the-powers-that-be are relaxing a bit. They don’t have to work as hard to introduce characters and conflict, and are taking advantage of groundwork laid last season. The script didn’t belabor Annie’s newness, or Ben’s mysteriousness, or Joan’s bitchiness, instead letting he characters mostly take care of themselves. And the actors are stretching their legs, as well. Perabo felt more relaxed, and let Annie breathe a little. Sure, assassins caught her without her weapon – twice – and she didn’t quite figure out the entire assassination plot, but it would be wrong to expect her to have become a super agent in the brief story time since Sri Lanka. One thing that has advanced, however, is the sexual tension between Annie and Auggie, which seemed to be amped higher than ever, despite the presence of Ben. Gorham is even more confident and suave, and he clicks with Perabo effortlessly. In contrast, I don’t read much heat at all between Perabo and Bailey. There was still domestic nonsense with the well-meaning Danielle and her daughters, but it felt less forced. In fact, Annie’s stunt in which she got the kids to ruin the carpet felt like a wink at audience, acknowledging how silly her living arrangements are.

One last point: Apparently this season’s episodes will be named after R.E.M. songs. You may recall that all of the first season stories were titled with Led Zeppelin tunes.

Oh, yeah? Sez you!

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