I can’t remember the last time I saw Piper Perabo, but I’m sure it was around the time of Coyote Ugly. If you remember that film, it was where she played a small town girl who came into the big city chasing dreams only to end up dancing atop a bar. It was a terrible film. That was probably the last time I saw her anywhere (okay, that’s a lie, I saw her in Cheaper By the Dozen but I’d like to pretend that never happened either), until this past summer where she’s been heating up the USA Network’s summer schedule with the Doug Liman produced Covert Affairs.
The series is, for all intents and purposes, a lighter less-heady version of previously popular spy drama Alias. Perabo plays Annie Walker, a fresh out of school recruit whose immense language skills has earned her a spot at Langley. Through the series, she trots around the globe doing spy things- exchanging information, extracting people, kicking people, and generally getting out of sticky spy situations. Her immediate team includes Auggie Anderson (a blind operative helping Walker from the desk, played by Christopher Gorham), Jai Wilcox (a fishy CIA officer who appears to have more than one secret) and the husband and wife director team played by Peter Gallagher and Kari Matchett.
It is the pairing of Matchett and Gallagher as CIA directors (with Gallagher’s character being Matchett’s superior) that proves to be the series’ unique character relationship. While Walker’s cover means she often lies to her sister and family, it is the strain between Gallagher and Matchett’s respective characters that proves to be the most interesting. How does a married couple possibly live and cope as two high-ranking CIA operatives? How do you possibly take that friction and disagreement home to bed? Not a bad set up for summer fare.
The show’s lighthearted veneer is both an asset and a hindrance. It’s relatively easy going and the missions and plotlines do their best not to complicate any of the characters. A former CIA agent troubles Walker, a previous lover (played by Eion Bailey), but this story line tends to falter more than it shines as it fails to do anything other than give some back story to why Walker will at times seem troubled (she at least, cries much less than Sydney Bristow did). The aesthetics and cinematography borrows more from the CSI school of television than it does The Wire, with pretty people abound and a glossy shine cast over the locales. Viewers shouldn’t expect season-long story arches and multi-layered complexities that lingers long after the show is done either. Through the season we’ve seen her travel to South America, Europe and across North America to diffuse situations like protecting a boy-genius, leaks in the Senate, suspicious art and an escaping Iranian defector who as it turns out, just wants to get back with his childhood girlfriend. Not exactly stopping a nuclear holocaust.
Yet you can’t help but enjoy the 40+ minutes it’s on every week. For one, Perabo is absolutely fantastic in it. She was born to play a lovable, but slightly troubled, beautiful spy whose world of espionage is both engaging and interesting, but only slightly dangerous. Her command of foreign dialects is believable and her earnest character makes her one of the best on television at the moment.
Summer fare rarely pushes deeper than the immediate surface. With Perabo proving the goods however, Covert Affairs has been the perfect antidote to television doldrums and a show to watch as it traverses past the singular season mark. If anything, Covert Affairs just wants to have a good time and to be well liked, both accomplished with stylistic aplomb.