I sometimes think the ideal way to review USA shows would be to watch them while doing other stuff. I’d flip on the latest screener, then go start dinner or grab the laundry to fold it or pick up my living room. This would be a little closer to the way most people watch TV, and it would also be a little closer to the way USA probably intends these shows to be watched. Every time I start laying into the logical fallacies of a show like Covert Affairs, I’m more or less fully aware that for the people who like this show, plot holes, elements that don’t quite work, and other hallmarks of criticism just don’t matter. For most people, if you like a show, you like it, and if you don’t, you just stop watching.
I kept up with the whole first season of Covert Affairs, even though it never really got any better than my initial review of the show, outside of Christopher Gorham’s work as Auggie (which I largely enjoyed). It wasn’t a bad show by any means, but it also wasn’t a show I sought out, even on the level of disposable pop candy. And yet USA shows have a weird, freaky tendency to find themselves in their second seasons. Burn Notice’s best year was year two, and White Collar figured out a way to blend its many fun elements into the perfect summer mix last year. (I don’t watch Royal Pains, but I’m told the same held true there.) So I had my hopes for the Covert Affairs premiere when I popped the screener in the DVD drive. Would this finally be the socks folding TV show of my dreams?
Sadly, it’s still not quite there. Piper Perabo is still a lot of fun, and Gorham is as great as ever, but there are just too many elements of the show that feel by the numbers. It’s hard to do a new twist on classic spy stories, but tonight’s episode—involving a tennis pro who has been a CIA informant and now may be in mortal danger, at least if Annie is to be believed—hit so many of the expected beats that it was all too easy to tune it out entirely. Even the double crosses that closed out the episode didn’t much resonate as twists. They were simply there because this is a spy show, and spy shows are supposed to have some sort of moment like this.
The thing about shows like this is that they can get by with two of the three prongs of the USA model working, so long as one of those two prongs is the characters. (It IS in the network’s motto.) White Collar got by in season one because the characters and the stand-alone episodes were both worth watching for (the overriding storyline was still a mess at that point). Burn Notice got by in the early days because the question of who burned Michael Westen was interesting enough to power through some pretty boring standalones (and it certainly helped that the central characters of the show were all fun to hang out with). The problem with Covert Affairs, then, is that it’s ALL about the characters, and, really, only Annie and Auggie are worth writing home about. Every time I have to watch another scene about Peter Gallagher and Kari Matchett fighting his legal situation, I start to die a little inside, and the stuff with Ben, Annie’s long-lost boyfriend who’s some kind of rogue spy or something, is even more dire.
Similarly, the interpersonal stuff is often really horribly misconceived. For a show that’s obviously been influenced so heavily by Alias (right down to the fact that Perabo kinda looks like Jennifer Garner if the lighting’s just right and you squint), it doesn’t seem to have learned the number one lesson of that show, which was that the at-home storylines are almost always less interesting than the spy storylines. I love Anne Dudek, but I’m hard-pressed to explain exactly what she’s doing in this show as Danielle, Annie’s sister. Mostly, she just seems to be there for Annie to get out of the way (in seemingly every episode), and tonight’s episode was the nadir of this approach, with Danielle being taken out of commission via some strategically placed grape juice glasses in the hands of her children. I’m sure we’re meant to be seeing the life Annie didn’t get to have, but these scenes are usually pretty boring, and they don’t add anything beyond wondering why the hell the producers hired Dudek for such a thankless part.
So the standalones are usually boring (tonight’s episode, for some reason, featured lots of driving tips), and the overarching story doesn’t have any obvious reasons to watch. Why, then, do I keep up with this show, outside of professional obligation? Well, Perabo and Gorham are both really, really, really fun. I wouldn’t say Perabo’s Golden Globes nomination for this role was wholly warranted, not when plenty of other great actresses were left out, but she really has taken this role and made it her own in a way I wouldn’t have predicted when first hearing about the show. And Gorham’s Auggie, all smiles and laser cane tapping, is a good time as well. The scene tonight when he walks into the tennis match and neatly gets the assassination target out of the stadium via a “seat mix-up” was the one place where the spy plotting felt clever, and I’m pretty sure that’s all Gorham. He and Perabo make a fun team, and the show has wisely decided to focus more of its attention on the two of them, if this episode is any indication.
And that’s not a bad move. Making this the Annie and Auggie Show, instead of trying to blend all of the elements that USA shows seem to need to include by default, wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. For as much as I enjoy complicated, complex television, sometimes, it’s possible for a show to try to do too much and end up a muddled mess. And that’s often how I feel about this series when Perabo and Gorham aren’t on screen, despite the fact that it employs a lot of actors I like. (I mentioned Dudek, but I dearly wish Gallagher and Matchett would be shipped off somewhere else. Perhaps Matchett could return full-time to Leverage, another show that gets the balance of character-standalone-overarching story just right.) But those two kids, boy, they make you realize that for as much as USA keeps saying “Characters Welcome,” it’s often really all about the actors playing them. There’s something to be said for charm, and Perabo and Gorham—particularly together—have it in spades.
- I just want to take a moment to register my dislike of the title sequence. The pilot’s title sequence—with Annie diving out of a plane to Florence and the Machine—was so striking that I both wished the producers would keep it as the series’ credits and knew they wouldn’t. The animated thing is just kind of silly.
- OK, I did like the gun battle behind the scenes at the tennis match. That was a shrewdly deployed bit of action TV. The car chase after went on for-fucking-ever, though, didn’t it?
- We might be adding this fulltime (I wouldn’t be covering it). Let us know if you’d be interested in reading weekly write-ups!