USA has built itself up into one of the biggest powers on cable - especially when it comes to original scripted drama - by keeping things light (both in tone and actual color palette) and offering up a seemingly endless supply of easy, breezy shows featuring attractive people in warm settings investigating mysteries of both the simple and ongoing variety. And if you just want a little eye candy, or something to turn your brain off in front of at the end of a tough day, USA's current roster has plenty to offer.
But of the three basic components in the formula of nearly every USA show since "Burn Notice" replaced "Monk" as the network flagship - colorful and/or likable heroes, entertaining standalone cases and an involving longer story arc - rarely will you find the same show successfully working all three at once. Really, the only one that carried this three-part harmony off for any significant length of time was "Burn Notice" itself, and that was essentially for one season (the show's second). The characters have stayed consistently engaging, but there have been plenty of periods where either the mythology has fallen flat or the cases of the week have seemed especially forgettable. On occasion, the show has struggled with both at the same time, and even the superhuman charm of Bruce Campbell and Jeffrey Donovan's facility for weird accents can only go so far. (Though I have a good feeling about the new season, given where the last one ended.)
Most of USA's other shows tend to understand that interesting characters matter - it's in the network slogan and everything - but they can be even more dicey when it comes to both the weekly and seasonal storytelling. Some shows eventually improve, while others get stuck in a rut after a while - a dichotomy neatly represented by tonight's return of "White Collar" at 9 and "Covert Affairs" at 10.
For the longest time, "White Collar" seemed like it was going to only get the first part of the formula right. As, respectively, a clever FBI agent and the dashing (i.e. ridiculously handsome) thief enlisted to help the bureau crack the toughest cases, Tim DeKay and Matthew Bomer had charisma and chemistry to spare, and Willie Garson added some extra flavor as Bomer's crooked pal, always reluctantly pulled into the FBI investigations. Unfortunately, "White Collar" creator Jeff Eastin and his writers failed to surround them with interesting stories. The big ongoing arc in the early days involved Bomer's Neal Caffrey trying to track down his ex-girlfriend, a character who never seemed worth the amount of devotion both Neal and the series had for her. And for the most part, the white collar cases themselves seemed to suggest that there was a reason most police dramas stuck to more violent and/or sensational crimes.
But "White Collar" enters its third season working a much more interesting long-term angle, involving a recovered Nazi submarine full of priceless, stolen works of art. Last season ended with the artwork allegedly burned up in a fire, but with DeKay's Peter Burke assuming they were really stolen by Neal - and Neal himself getting an anonymous note pointing him to those very same items.
The heart of this show is the relationship between cop and crook, two men with different agendas but roughly equal brainpower. Previous sections of the show either had them working so in harmony that there was no tension to the case of the week scenes, or else tried awkwardly to manufacture conflict between the two of them. The way this story plays out in the season premiere, however, and how it sets things up for the future, is both more genuine and compelling. Peter and Neal now have very good reason to be wary of each other, and that not only suggests good things in the future but spices up all of their interactions while they work their latest case. It's a vast improvement, and a welcome example of a show eventually finding itself by eliminating outside distractions and focusing as much as possible on the core concept.
"Covert Affairs," on the other hand, enters its second season still not having figured out what it has to offer beyond putting Piper Perabo into designer suits and letting her show off her rookie spy character Annie Walker's impressive skills with foreign languages and working a stick shift. (It's the first espionage drama I can remember that makes defensive driving seem like the most important thing you can learn at spy school.)
And Perabo looks great, has boundless, likable energy and plays very well opposite Christopher Gorham (Annie's blind, suave handler Augie) and Kari Matchett (Annie's CIA boss Joan). But there's no there there. Annie's missions each week are forgettable, and most seem to revolve around Annie seeming to get too personally invested, only for her instincts to be proven right over her more jaded colleagues. And the two ongoing story arcs - one about Annie's ex-boyfriend Ben (Eion Bailey), now some kind of rogue spy; the other about Joan's husband Arthur (Peter Gallagher) being investigated by both a reporter and his Agency bosses - still feel half-baked at best, like creators Matt Corman and Chris Ord know that part of their obligation as USA showrunners is to have something percolating long-term, and are keeping these going until they strike on something better.
As it stands right now, "Covert Affairs" is pleasant but completely disposable. It achieves the bare minimum USA seems to require of its shows, which is to be something you can watch while folding laundry or throwing out junk mail. But as "Burn Notice" has demonstrated in the past, and as "White Collar" seems to have finally figured out, there's a whole lot more that can be done with the USA formula than just good enough.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Also, before anybody asks, I don't think either show is going to be getting weekly review treatment around here. In general, even the USA shows I really really like can be tough to analyze on an episode-by-episode basis. So for now my plan is to keep watching "White Collar" to see if the improvement continues, watch "Covert Affairs" while doing other things, and if one show or the other inspires some kind of specific critical point, I'll write about that particular episode. But don't expect either to join the rotation as of now.