Preview: Covert Affairs 1×1

Should satisfy your need for more Alias episodes

Covert Affairs

In the US: Tuesdays, 10/9c, USA Network. Starts 13th July

Piper Perabo should have had a great career in the movies. Okay, Coyote Ugly wasn’t exactly a great starting point, but she’s a good actress, she did well in The Prestige – exciting things should have happened but didn’t. Maybe it’s because most people confuse her with Jennifer Garner.

So it’s good to see her getting her own TV show, Covert Affairs, even if it does appear the producers were trying to remake Alias and got her confused with Jennifer Garner as well.

In Covert Affairs, Perabo plays a new recruit to the CIA whose language skills and aptitude for the job get her rushed into the field by her occasionally helpful bosses Arthur Campbell (The OC‘s Peter Gallagher) and his distrustful wife Joan (Kari Matchett from Leverage and 24). While out and about, she gets to have fights and car chases, while putting on array of accents to fool the police, FBI and even, sometimes, the enemy. No wigs mind. That would have been too obvious.

But since this is about a “single woman [with a] double life” (as the show’s posters and ads say) and the show is called Covert Affairs (emphasis on the second word), we also have possible romantic interest for her in the form of the helpful Auggie Anderson (Jake 2.0/Ugly Betty‘s Christopher Gorham), the smooth Jai Wilcox (Sendhil Ramamurthy from Heroes, but only from episode two) and whomever her unknowing sister (Anne Dudek from House and Mad Men) sends in her direction. If only she weren’t pining for that guy she met on vacation all those years ago…

While it’s not quite up there with Burn Notice, Covert Affairs just about manages to blend humour, romance and spy action to create something that while not unmissable, should make any pangs you have for the return of Alias disappear.

Continuing to deliver powerful weekday blocks of originals, USA Network promises to maintain its position as the Network with the most exciting summer shows when it presents the newest original series in the line-up, COVERT AFFAIRS starring Piper Perabo (Coyote Ugly, Beverly Hills Chihuahua), Christopher Gorham (Ugly Betty, Jake 2.0), Peter Gallagher (The O.C., American Beauty), Kari Matchett (Invasion), Anne Dudek (House, Mad Men) and Sendhil Ramamurthy (Heroes, It’s a Wonderful Afterlife). COVERT AFFAIRS will premiere on Tuesday, July 13 at 10/9c. USA’s new hit series, WHITE COLLAR, will serve as the show’s lead-in at 9/8c.

In COVERT AFFAIRS, we meet Annie Walker (Perabo), a young CIA trainee who is suddenly thrust into the inner sanctum of the agency after being promoted to field operative. While it appears that she has been hand-picked for her exceptional linguistic skills, it may be something from her past that her CIA bosses are really after. Gorham plays Auggie Anderson, a CIA military intelligence agent, blinded while on assignment, and Annie’s guide in this world of bureaucracy, excitement and intrigue. Gallagher is Arthur Campbell, the formidable director of Clandestine Services for the CIA. Dudek plays Danielle, a married mother of two and Annie’s older sister who knows nothing of her life as a spy. Matchett plays Joan, head of the CIA’s Domestic Protection Division… and Arthur’s wife. In episode two, Ramamurthy joins the show as Jai Wilcox, an agent with a rich family history within the walls of the CIA.

From Universal Cable Productions, COVERT AFFAIRS is executive produced by Doug Liman (the “Bourne” trilogy, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, The O.C.) and Dave Bartis (The O.C., The Heist) through Dutch Oven and written and co-executive produced by Matt Corman (Deck the Halls) and Chris Ord (Deck the Halls). James Parriott (Grey’s Anatomy, Ugly Betty) executive produces. Jonathan Glassner (Stargate SG-1, CSI: Miami) is co-executive producer and director. Tim Matheson (USA’s BURN NOTICE, PSYCH, Criminal Minds) directed the pilot.

Is it any good?
For a good couple of minutes, I had a very real sinking feeling and suspicion this was going to be rubbish. Using the time-honoured spy series tradition of getting a character to sit through a polygraph test coupled with flashbacks, the show gives us a backstory dump for Perabo’s character. For some reason, that includes much discussion of a whirlwind holiday romance with a guy – she even gets asked if the sex was any good, to which we’re treated with yet another painfully pretentious flashback.

Mmm. How clunky.

But as Perabo goes through the rest of her training, goes skydiving and generally starts to be able to play things more for laughs, the show does get better. Perabo has quite a range, and gives us a very believable performance – indeed performances, because the array of parts she plays she does with equal plausibility, no matter how different they are – and we do actually care for her character.

We then head off to CIA HQ where Perabo meets her fellow agents and superiors, before she’s sent out to retrieve information from a Russian informer. That’s when it goes pear-shaped and Perabo has to recover the situation, aided by Gorham, and hindered by bad men in fast cars, her bosses, US law enforcement and a guy she met on a date once.

Thankfully, exec producer Doug Liman and his other producers have decided to channel Bourne more than Mr and Mrs Smith here, so super-duper spy gizmos are out the door, replaced by reasonable human tradecraft – no Burn Notice style voiceovers but a similar degree of authenticity that just flirts with the implausible in the way that comedies can do (although nowhere near to the extent that Chuck does).

My issues
There are a few issues I’d have with the show, though. Perabo’s character has a holiday romance scrapbook from her time with “the one”? She’s in her mid-30s, she speaks six languages and is hard-nosed CIA agent. WTF? Her sister just match-makes, so there’s no real background to her character or sisterly relationship beyond poking into Perabo’s relationships with men. Having Matchett married to Gallagher does provide some humour but in any scene where she’s not working, Matchett is crazy suspicious that Gallagher’s having affairs. Basically, all the women in the show are defined by their relationships with men and are slightly mental about men, too.

To be fair, to a large extent, most of the men are defined by their relationship (and desire to have one) with Perabo and the show is called Covert Affairs, not Covert Celibacy, but at least Gallagher gets to have some kind of career and doesn’t have to pretend to be a prostitute at any point.

The story is also a tad predictable. You know more or less from the outset exactly which direction everything’s going to go in, who the bad guys are, etc. It won’t surprise anyone to hear – okay it might surprise some so spoiler tags ahead – that Perabo’s holiday beau was really a spy and he’s back on the scene. Gorham’s not quite in Perabo’s league, so hopefully when Ramamurthy turns up, he’ll right the natural order of things there.

Despite those reservations though, Covert Affairs looks like it’ll be worth watching. When it tries to be funny, it is. When it tries to be action-packed, it succeeds. And it’s a lot harder edged than I thought it would be. The romance needs a little work, as do the female characters, but let’s give it time.


  • Rob Buckley

    I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.