Review: USA's 'Covert Affairs'
A few weeks back, there was a report that ABC was considering a remake of "Alias," with a new cast and a streamlined approach that was heavy on the spy missions and lighter on (if not absent of) the convoluted Rambaldi mythology. This idea seemed silly, not only because "Alias" went off the air only four years ago, but because so much of what made the show memorable was Jennifer Garner.
But the timetable on remakes seems to speed up all the time, to the point that it's not surprising the CW is introducing a new version of "Nikita" (another show about a deadly female spy) only nine years after USA's "La Femme Nikita" came to an end.
And tomorrow at 10, USA introduces "Covert Affairs," showing that it is, indeed, possible to do a more straightforward version of "Alias" minus Garner, and making any of ABC's plans in that regard even more redundant.
Piper Perabo (who actually has a faint resemblance to Garner) plays Annie Walker, a CIA trainee who gets pulled from training when a mission calls on her language skills (and her ability to pass for a high-priced DC call girl). Given a tour of her new office in Langley by blind data analyst Auggie Anderson (Christopher Gorham, very likable), Annie learns that post-9/11, the Agency hired a new wave of younger agents and also began encouraging them to date within the group to avoid the danger of outside influences. That creates an incestual atmosphere that Auggie describes as "like Club Med without the free drinks."
Early in the pilot episode, a CIA polygraph expert asks Annie, "If you join the CIA, will you be able to separate your work from your personal life?" It quickly becomes clear, however, that in this show's conception of the Agency, that kind of separation is impossible.
Annie's boss Joan Campbell (Keri Matchett), for instance, is married to another department head, Arthur Campbell (Peter Gallagher), and Joan uses CIA resources not only for marriage counseling, but to spy on Arthur to prove her suspicions of infidelity.
"Why can't you be a good CIA wife and just trust me?" Arthur complains to Joan.
"Because I'm not a 'CIA wife,'" she replies. "I'm a wife who works for the CIA."
The pilot script by Matt Corman and Chris Ord (whose work belies their only previous screen credit, "Deck the Halls") strikes a smart balance between the relationship scenes (there's obvious chemistry between Perabo and Gorham, and Annie also takes a shine to a handsome young agent who works for Arthur) and the actual spy mission, which involves a Russian assassin named Stas who wants to come in from the cold. (And in this post-9/11 era, it's almost comforting to hear such a phrase from Cold War days that seem so much safer in hindsight.)
Perabo has a lot of unfortunate titles on her resume, first making a splash (sort of) in "Coyote Ugly" and "The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle," but she's quite good here. The polygraph scene is there to dump a lot of exposition on the audience in a short period of time, but there's a nice moment where the interviewer, clearly trying to judge her self-control as well as her honesty, asks her whether the sex with an ex-boyfriend was good.
Annie smiles, not phased or embarrassed at all, and says, "It rocked."
There's a tendency in stories about young female professionals to show them as tentative at first (even Garner on "Alias" looked nervous whenever she wasn't wearing a wig or adopting a fake accent), but Perabo's Annie is a charming, unapologetic natural. The next scene shows her in parachute training - she's the first in her group, of course, to volunteer to jump from the plane - and as we watch her soar through the air (and it looks like Perabo either did the stunt herself or she has a twin sister to double for her), she's full of joy and in complete control of her body and her life.
Which isn't to say that she doesn't make some rookie mistakes in the pilot, but Annie's far more on her game than off it, showing off not only her facility for dialects (I predict she’ll be playing a German in a Louise Brooks wig by episode six at the latest), but the ability to fake out an FBI agent whose path unwittingly crosses her case, plausible combat skills and running (like Garner, Perabo moves like she knows what she's doing on a track) and some high-speed offensive driving. "Covert Affairs" was executive produced by director Doug Liman, and while he doesn't actually handle the directing - those duties fall into the capable hands of actor/director Tim Matheson, who keeps things moving briskly and knows how to showcase his actors - the pilot definitely seems to have learned some lessons from Liman's work on "The Bourne Identity" and "Mr. & Mrs. Smith."
Matheson is by now a USA veteran on both sides of the camera. He’s directed multiple episodes of “Burn Notice” and “Psych” and both directs and guest-stars in tomorrow’s “White Collar” season two premiere. (And his acting gives that show some pep it was lacking for most of its first season.) “Covert Affairs” clearly fits the USA aesthetic, down to the way Annie has to improvise a way to bypass a fingerprint scanner using nothing but a cell phone and a Listerine breath strip.
And, like all USA shows, “Covert Affairs” seems more engaging in its standalone storytelling than its arcs. The extra-length pilot (it’s scheduled to run from 10 to 11:16) deals not only with the Russian assassin, but Annie’s relationship with her civilian sister (Anne Dudek, who on “House,” “Big Love” and “Mad Men” has shown enough brass that I’d rather she was playing a spy) and hints of a deeper reason for Annie’s rapid promotion from trainee to field agent, and that last part feels (so far) like it’s obligatory rather than something the creative team wants to do.
But here’s the thing: for all that “Alias” fans complain about the nonsensical story arcs in retrospect, if they weren’t there at the moment and the show was just Garner fighting in various wigs and fetish outfits, would the show have been half as addictive? The trick isn’t to ditch serialized stories, but to do good serialized stories.
Maybe the bigger “Covert Affairs” arc will turn out to be a dud, but in Perabo, her co-stars and this world, the show has a solid foundation to build on.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org