Covert Affairs debuts tonight on USA at 10 p.m. Eastern. It's an extra-long premiere, running until 11:16 p.m., so set those DVRs accordingly.
There are actors who are absolute chameleons, able to shift and change as the part they're playing requires it. There are actors who pretty much play the same role every time (or at least project the same role every time), simply because their level of charisma and/or stardom demands it. And there are actors who are flat and affectless but keep getting roles because they're really good-looking or read well in the casting room or something. Up until Covert Affairs' pilot, I likely would have placed series star Piper Perabo in that lattermost category. She's a gorgeous little slip of a thing, but in her previous roles, I haven't been completely convinced of either her acting ability or her sheer charisma. She's always just kind of been there.
That's not really the case in Covert Affairs. I'm not ready to start the Piper Perabo Appreciation Society just yet, but she's surprisingly good in the role of Annie Walker, a fresh-faced CIA agent who's trying to put her past behind her and get started out with the agency and a bunch of new colleagues. Covert Affairs has its problems in the pilot, and Perabo's performance has its problems in the pilot, but there's something compelling enough at the core of them to suggest this will be a little better than just "USA does Alias." USA, of course, never met a lightweight premise it didn't like, and in a summer absolutely glutted with networks trying to do lightweight escapism and crowding the airwaves with shows that all aim for breezy and end up feeling cloying, it's inevitable that Covert Affairs will feel just a little redundant. But it feels less redundant than most of the other new shows out there this month, so that's a victory of sorts.
Or, honestly, maybe it's just that the show proves it's capable of handling that most basic of pilot tasks: providing exposition. After having to watch dozens of pilots this summer (and for the fall) that handle exposition in the clunkiest ways possible, it's refreshing to see Covert Affairs get almost everything you need to know out there in the first ten minutes and take off for the races. Key reveals will be dropped along the way, but the series understands that plot back story generally needs to be filled in directly, but character sketches can be deepened through the ways the characters act and speak. There are a few clunky moments when someone asks Annie why she joined the CIA and she delivers a clumsy monologue, but they are few and mercifully far between.
Furthermore, the spy stuff is mostly well-handled. There are at least two nicely directed sequences here (thanks to the steady hand of USA favorite Tim Matheson at the camera), one featuring Annie trying to get close enough to a cell phone to gather needed intelligence and another featuring her chasing down a potential informant near episode's end. USA shows often feel a little flat on the directorial level (though White Collar, also debuting tonight, has stepped that up nicely in its second season), and while there's a car chase that's like every other car chase you've ever seen anywhere else in this episode, Covert Affairs is a cut above in that regard. It feels like it's own thing, more than it feels like the typical USA approach of standing up and shouting, "Hey, kids! Let's clean out the barn and put on Scarecrow and Mrs. King!"
Another way this show differs from typical USA stuff is in its casting. Beyond just Perabo, this show has something like an all-star cast of long-time TV guest stars, and nearly all of the actors are used well. Kari Matchett and Peter Gallagher play dueling department heads with a connection, and both actors have fun with the material. Christopher Gorham turns up as a character that initially feels gimmicky - a blind gadget guy - but somehow finds his way to being genuinely compelling, with good chemistry with Perabo. The one misstep here is Anne Dudek, as Annie's sister. If the creators of the show learned nothing from Alias, it should have been that domestic plots don't work nearly so well in a spy drama, and placing the flinty-edged Dudek in a storyline where she's just a mom with kids and a husband, trying to find her sister the right guy, takes away some of her appeal. Make her evil soon, please, show.
So what doesn't work? Well, there are plenty of things around the show's edges that suggest an approach that's probably too scattered. For one thing, Annie is supposed to be harder-edged than Perabo is playing her, I think. Perabo consistently exudes vulnerability, which is one of the things that made her so attractive to casting directors there for a few years. Annie is supposed to be someone who's shut off her vulnerability because of a romantic relationship gone sour a few years ago, but Perabo always seems as though she's ready to be your best gal pal. It's an asset in the scenes where she's playing the role of a call girl or something to get intelligence, but it becomes a problem in some of the scenes where she's supposed to be one tough bitch.
Furthermore, if you compare this pilot to the Alias pilot, it's pretty much not in the same league. It's illustrative of how the "let's make this as escapist and entertaining as possible" approach limits shows from being as good as they could be while also probably keeping them from being all that bad. If you turn on a TNT or USA show, you pretty much know what you're going to get, and you'll likely find it mostly entertaining. Lord knows I've kept up with plenty of shows on both networks I don't really love but can't work up a good hate for either. They're just kind of there, acceptable time wasters to float along with in the summer. Covert Affairs definitely joins this list of shows I'll DVR and watch while doing other stuff, but there's the material there to be really, genuinely exceptional, and I'm not sure the show is going to reach up and grab hold of it.
The Alias pilot ramps the stakes up really high, right from the start. Sure, Sydney Bristow is the same kind of goofy, lovable girl next door that Annie is here, but she's almost immediately losing her fiancee and discovering the man she works for is evil and learning the truth about what her father does. It's just expertly pitched and paced TV, and it gives the show a lot of goodwill going forward. It also dares a LOT, setting up a fairly complicated wheels-within-wheels master plot that will hopefully pay off down the line. Now, fans of Alias know that it basically fell apart somewhere around season three, encumbered by that very master plot that made it so thrilling in the first place. So the concept of a mythology-lite Alias is an appealing one. But at the same time, Covert Affairs simply dares so much less that there's little room for it to grow. The ceiling is already reached in the pilot, and the show will probably reach that ceiling for weeks and weeks to come. Indeed, you can probably pretty much predict the one "mythological" type twist the show takes from its opening ten minutes. It may end up being a more consistent show than Alias, but it will have trouble being a show that inspires the same kinds of obsessive fans that Alias did. It's a show designed to turn your brain off to. There's nothing wrong with that, but it also means the show feels just the slightest bit like the aftertaste of another show.
Put another way: Alias introduces a dizzying number of characters. Covert Affairs introduces the same number. All of the characters register in the Alias pilot. Few of them do here, beyond the actors playing them. The writers of the Covert Affairs pilot - Matt Corman and Chris Ord - are good at laying out the basic dynamics of the show, and they're good at writing many different kinds of dialogue (an uncomfortable dinner party scene sparkles about as much as that expositional scene earlier does), but they're not good at making any of this instantly recognizable or iconic. They're no J.J. Abrams, in other words, just as Perabo, good as she is, is no Jennifer Garner.
But for a lot of viewers, that's going to be a good thing, not a bad thing. There's nothing wrong with a show that specifically aims low (Time critic James Poniewozik has redubbed the USA lineup "Theatre of Light Competence," which more or less nails it). But it's pretty hard to get really energized about it all the same. Covert Affairs is a fun show. I'm in for at least half a season because I like the cast and I tend to like spy shows. But at the same time, it's a show that feels too much like empty calories to really be worth it. The best TV makes you hungry for more. USA shows, like too many other shows on basic cable, leave you hungry, I suppose, but in the way where you have to walk to the corner store at 3 a.m. to get another bag of Cool Ranch Doritos. It'll do for now, but it won't be enough in the morning.
- OK, credit where it's due. The pilot's title sequence is striking. I doubt they'll keep it for the series as a whole, but it gives the series a big budget feel a lot of other dramas of this ilk lack.