|Piper Perabo and Chris Gorham in "Covert Affairs"|
For its first two seasons, USA’s Covert Affairs was an okay show. It wasn’t great; it typically aspired to “good;” and it mostly landed somewhere between average and above-average. It followed the work and home life of Annie Walker (Piper Perabo), a linguistics expert fresh out of CIA training (actually pulled out of training early because her language skills were needed on an assignment) and working for the fictional Domestic Protection Division. The supporting cast was filled with great role players with good television track records. Christopher Gorham, veteran of a number of good shows canceled early (Popular, Jake 2.0, Ugly Betty) played Auggie, the blind tech wiz and intelligence officer. Kari Matchett and Peter Gallagher played Joan and Arthur Campbell, Annie’s bosses (Joan being her direct supervisor and Arthur a CIA chief). Sendhil Ramamurthy, fresh off his run on Heroes, played the workplace adversary, Jai Wilcox. And Anne Dudek provided the home drama as Annie’s sister, Danielle.
All of the actors on the show were (and still are) great. But Covert Affairs really had problems in two areas: blending the home drama and the work drama, and blending the stand-alone episodes with the mythology. Annie spent the first couple of seasons living with her sister and her family but the show never really seemed to know how to use them. There was the occasional storyline where Annie and Danielle ended up in the same location while Annie was on a mission or where she got sent off to a foreign country while she was supposed to be doing something important for Danielle and her kids. But none of these stories were particularly interesting beyond being just another story-of-the-week. And once Danielle found out Annie’s secret, she became completely worthless, serving only as a hindrance to storylines and adding pretty much nothing of value.
As for the mythology piece, Covert Affairs tried to set up an early relationship between Annie and Ben Mercer (Eion Bailey). Basically, they have a vacation relationship and she comes back to the US expecting to never see him again only to have him save her life at the end of the pilot when it turns out that he’s actually a spy. The show never really carried through on the promise of that story, though, and through the first two seasons (27 episodes), Mercer only turns up a half dozen times, usually at the end of each season.
While they were struggling to integrate the mythology pieces into the individual episodes, the show also struggled to create interesting cases-of-the week. The pieces all seemed to be there, thanks largely to some excellent casting including Oded Fehr as an Israeli Mossad agent and Gregory Itzin as Henry Wilcox, Jai’s father, and a former CIA director. All the people involved seemed game and the production values were (and still are) surprisingly good for a show that needs to make Toronto regularly look like Washington DC, along with a host of other more exotic locales. But the stories themselves never really seemed up to snuff and left me constantly wanting more mythology, if only because that story at least held the promise of something interesting.
And then something kind of amazing happened. Between seasons two and three the writers jettisoned pretty much everything that wasn’t working. Danielle was shipped off to California with her husband and kid. I like Anne Dudek, but her character was adding so little to the show that her leaving really freed the show up to focus on the CIA stories, especially the procedural stories. Jai also was written off (killed in a car bomb), which served the dual purpose of relieving the show of a directionless character (it wasn’t a bad character or performance, they just never seemed to know how to use him) and set up a longer story arc for the season that allowed the show to increase their use of Itzin.
With the cast trimmed down the writers also solved some story problems the show had been having. In the pilot, Annie is introduced as an agent still in training. While this may make for more drama, it also made her a pretty crappy spy, constantly botching missions in some small way, though usually coming through in the end. By the beginning of season three, Annie was actually a fairly competent agent, which helped boost the strength of the weekly missions. Also, Covert Affairs ditched its old mythology for a brand new, tightly structured story encompassing the season’s first ten episodes, which aired last summer. Annie left the DPD for a new division headed by Lena (Sarah Clarke) and Richard Coyle joined the cast as her primary target, Simon Fischer, a businessman with suspected ties to Russia and the KGB. I won’t spoil how the first ten episodes play out, but they do make for a thrilling narrative with twists and turns that are neither obvious nor out of place.
The second part of the season was a little more problematic as it functioned mostly as a place-holder between the thrilling conclusion of the first half and the eventual hookup of Annie and Auggie in the finale. But while the second story arc couldn’t really match its predecessor, the stand-alone storylines continued to be quite good.
So that brings us to the current, fourth season, which premiered last night. It picks up fresh, eschewing pretty much all of the previous storylines except for the romance and the third season’s cliffhanger, in which Henry Wilcox gives Annie evidence that Arthur has been funding terrorists and Auggie has been helping him. The premiere has to do a lot of setting up in order to establish the stakes. Auggie is under investigation at DPD so Annie heads to Colombia off-book in order to clear his name. This whole mission is a little hard to comprehend in no small part because Auggie joins Annie for no real reason. I get that he’s trying to help, but he only ends up hindering things because, let’s face it, he’s blind. He doesn’t make a good field officer.
The result of their South American jaunt is the discovery that, while Arthur is, in fact, financing an international terrorist, said terrorist is his son. The fallout from this reveal is predictable, but it seems to be there more to set up Hill Harper’s Calder Michaels, introduced as the Colombian station chief. Harper is a regular this season, so presumably he’s going to end up back in the States at some point. He’s good in this episode, so I’m looking forward to more, but just how he’s going to be used is still unclear. Also introduced is Michelle Ryan, making vague threats to Henry Wilcox (“Tell Arthur Campbell the blood is on his hands”). Like I said, this episode is more introduction than anything, setting the pieces in motion for what will presumably be a bigger story moving forward.
Covert Affairs is an easy show to overlook, given its network (USA) and light-heartedness. But it is filled with really great performances and has found a way over the last two seasons to correctly identify the parts that aren’t working and shove them aside for something new. If you’re at all interested in the show, season four provides a great jumping in point and it should be a fun ride going forward.
A couple of stray thoughts:
The premiere opens with an in media res scene set ten weeks later (all the rage these days) showing Annie and Michaels in a shootout after an emotional phone call with Auggie in which he says “I shouldn’t have read you in, I should have just said ‘I love you.’” So Auggie has secrets now too.
Arthur and Joan knowing (or at least suspecting) that Annie and Auggie’s separate trips to Colombia are a cover for their relationship is amusing. Though the reveal of Joan’s pregnancy doesn’t have nearly the emotional weight I think it was supposed to.
“This, whatever this was, was a mess.”
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