November 21, 2012



Cable’s USA Network has the reputation of being a place where procedurals basically repeat variations on the same episode over and over for years, until the series finally dies of old age.  That’s certainly the case with some of the network’s stalwarts like Psych and Burn Notice, but recently USA has shown a welcome interest in developing shows beyond their initial premises.  Suits became a better show once it put its “fake lawyer works at a big law firm” beginnings into the background, and this season, USA’s CIA drama COVERT AFFAIRS has taken major steps forward in its third year on the air.

One change in Covert Affairs 2.0 has been structural, as it largely abandoned case-of-the-week stories for longer multiepisode arcs.  More important, though, has been the maturing of the show’s tone and heroine.  For two seasons, Annie Walker (Piper Perabo) was the cutest little spy you could ever hope to meet, plucked from graduate school after a tropical beach love affair with an agent, and blessed with a near-miraculous gift for languages.  Every week, Annie found herself in the middle of a mission that was way out of her depth, and yet with sheer nerve and instinct, darned if she didn’t see it through.  The overall tone of Covert Affairs was typified by the amount of effort Annie (and the show) put into hiding her true identity from her unsuspecting sister, as she pretended to be a globe-trotting curator for the Smithsonian.

This season, Sis and the Smithsonian, and for that matter the gimmick of Annie’s multilingual genius, were almost completely gone, and Annie started acting like a real–well, a real movie–spy.  Shrewder, more ambitious, and less goodnatured than she used to be, with a deeper capacity for hurt, Annie was still manipulable, but now she manipulated other people too.  This was best demonstrated in the first of the season’s two arcs, which gave Annie a new mentor, Lena Smith (Sarah Clarke), who for a while supplanted Joan Campbell (Kari Matchett) as her role model.  The casting was perhaps too easy a tip-off, considering that Clarke rose to fame playing one of TV’s legendary traitors, Nina Myers on 24, and of course it turned out that Lena was a double-agent who murdered Annie’s beloved and tried to kill her as well.  For a while, though, Annie successfully played both ends against the middle as she dumped Joan for a new model, enjoying her own latent recklessness and maybe even ruthlessness.  All this gave Perabo much more to play than the endless pool of naivete that had defined Annie before, and she’s been gratifyingly up to the challenge.

The second arc, which ended in tonight’s season finale, written by series creators Chris Ord and Matt Corman and directed by Renny Harlin, was a little less productive, because it turned too much on double- and triple-crosses and reverses, without the personal impact that the Lena Smith story had.  The central figure was Eyal Lavine (Oded Fehr), who in previous seasons had been a fantasy-figure Mossad superspy.  Here his trustworthiness was frequently in question, and although the show rang a few fun changes on the theme (Tovah Feldshuh was particularly valuable as Eyal’s no-nonsense Mossad superior), we just didn’t have the emotional investment in Eyal that would have been needed for the storyline to really land.  By tonight’s episode, Annie, Eyal and erstwhile buddy Auggie Anderson (Christopher Gorham) were on the run from evil Saudis in Amsterdam, and it didn’t have much weight.  The episode’s tease of next season’s storyline turned out to be a tease indeed, as Annie accepted a mission from disgraced (but still powerful) former Agency chieftain Henry Wilcox (Gregory Itzin, another 24 nogoodnik), based on a file whose content we weren’t even allowed to glimpse.

The other major development of the season finale was the show finally pulling the trigger on the long-simmering relationship between Annie and Auggie.  As with any other series that finally decides “they will” after seasons of  “will they or won’t they,” this is both an opportunity and a risk.  The romance could serve to deepen the characters, or else it could sink them in a morass of soap.  One way or another, it will certainly change the tone of the series.

When Covert Affairs returns next season (while no breakout hit, its numbers this season have been comfortably in the 0.7-0.8 range, a medium level of success for USA), there’s still room for it to improve.  The show continues to be weakest on its big picture plots, the overarching saga of what’s going on at the Agency, usually personified by Joan and her husband (and fellow CIA big-wig) Arthur (Peter Gallagher).  Joan and Arthur, with their constant wedded sniping and frequent plots against each other, are the sketchiest characters on the series, although Matchett and Gallagher do a good job disguising that, and Matchett finally had some meaty material this year during the Lena Smith arc.  The show needs to commit to a storyline that defines what version of the Agency as a whole it wants to offer.  (The good news is that with the recent real-life Petreus disaster, hardly any plot would seem too crazy.)  If Henry Wilcox is going to be a major character next season, as the tease seemed to indicate, he also needs to be something other than a shadowy puller of strings.  While even with these improvements, no one will ever mistake Covert Affairs for Homeland–or even for Hunted–it’s now superior to, say, Nikita, and it’s heartening to see that USA appears to be committed to making it better.

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."