December 19, 2014

SHOWBUZZDAILY Season Finale Review: “Covert Affairs”


In a way, COVERT AFFAIRS typifies the uncertain place where USA Network finds itself these days.  The series began in 2010 as one of USA’s mostly light-hearted “blue-sky” procedurals.  It centered around young, naive language expert Annie Walker (Piper Perabo), who was literally seduced into joining the CIA on a beach vacation, and who showed spunk in solving a crisis of the week in every episode.  There was a bit of serialization–a flirtatious relationship with blind case officer Auggie Anderson (Christopher Gorham), some agency politics featuring Annie’s married bosses the Campbells, Joan (Kari Matchett) and Arthur (Peter Gallagher)–but fundamentally the show was escapist action-adventure fluff.

Around Season 3, Covert Affairs started to get darker and more ambitious, even as USA was moving away from being the network of Monk and Psych.  Annie became a real spy with a rebellious streak, rather than merely someone with good instincts and the ability to ape any dialect convincingly.  The stories were more serialized, the violence was amped up, the emotional stakes increased.  That evolution has continued with each successive season, until this year’s Season 5 had Annie contract a potentially serious heart condition, and leave the CIA’s employ entirely when the Agency transferred her to a desk job, taking a position instead with private intelligence contractor McQuaid Security and its boss Ryan McQuaid (new regular Nic Bishop).

The problem, as has happened with most of USA’s more serious shows (excluding Suits), is that Covert Affairs hasn’t done a great job of functioning as a more complex, nuanced drama.  The plots have been thin and lacking in inspired twists, and the characters haven’t stood up to the scrutiny that serialized content requires.  Series creators Matt Corman and Chris Ord haven’t made their changes pay off dramatically.  A major example this season was Annie’s medical condition.  There was no real suspense attached to it, because clearly it wasn’t going to kill her or incapacitate her to the point where Covert Affairs became the story of Annie Walker: Headquarters Intelligence Analyst, so instead every two or three episodes she would randomly keel over, to be revived in short order.  Similarly, no sooner had she left the CIA than she was working in close conjunction with Joan and Auggie anyway, so that her departure was essentially meaningless.  Annie’s developing romance with McQuaid, which the show seems to intend be taken very seriously, never felt convincing–if they’d broken up at any point, it would have been perfectly believable.

Tonight’s Season 5 finale, written by Corman and Ord and directed by Stephen Kay, wrapped up the current storylines in fairly perfunctory fashion, and left some cliffhangers for a potential Season 6.  Big Bad Chechen Aleksandre Belenko (Shawn Doyle), who had begun the season launching terrorist attacks on CIA facilities, turned out to be killing off members of Auggie’s old Army squad for a much more prosaic reason:  they’d shot his brother when stationed in Chechnya (in order to save Auggie’s life).  Annie and McQuaid spent the hour schlepping through Chechnya with Belenko, trying to find their way to Agency operatives while dodging Russian snipers, and at the end of it all, Belenko saved Annie’s life when she had one of her attacks, and became an Agency asset, bygones being bygones.  Meanwhile, back in DC, Auggie and the other last remaining member of his unit narrowly escaped death at the hands of Belenko’s hired assassin, when the cavalry turned up at the last minute.  It was proficient, but not particularly thrilling.

The finale had Annie pondering marriage to McQuaid and a return to the CIA, while Arthur might run for the Senate and Auggie was supposedly leaving the Agency (and presumably the show) to travel around the world.  In fact, Covert‘s ratings have been lousy this season, so it’s not certain any of that will be resolved–although, with Suits again the exception, just about everything on USA has been underperforming, which has led to marginal shows like Graceland and Satisfaction getting renewed, meaning that Covert Affairs isn’t necessarily dead.  If it does return, there’s always the chance that it’ll get a second creative wind, the way The Good Wife has–but that show is something of a miracle.  More likely, Covert Affairs will remain another USA tweener, not quite the fun, weightless hour it used to be, but also not the satisfying drama it aspires to become.  What it’s unlikely to do is surprise.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."