Friday, June 10, 2011

Covert Affairs Review

I'm just gonna come right out and say it. I have a thing for Piper Perabo. Being a gay man, we'll call said "thing" platonic, but to be perfectly honest, I feel a bit confused. I mean, take Coyote Ugly. The hilarity of her keyboard pounding on a rooftop in NYC is not lost on me...and yet every time I find it playing on TV I decide to stop channel surfing in order to 'reinvestigate its lameness.' In truth I actually like it, God forgive me.

Imagine Me & You, the lovely, gentle, sweet lesbian romance movie she did with Lena Headey (and Matthew Goode, thank you very much) is fantastic and never got the attention it deserved. I even watched The Cave, which she was in again with Lena (they are now best friends, and doubtless will invite me to hang out one day) and even enjoyed her plucky, fearless (until monsters showed up), cave climbing character. She had a brief, though important and well-played, role in The Prestige that was hard to watch, and a pretty unoriginal turn in the plague/apocalypse horror movie Carriers, alongside Chris Pine and a group of fairly distinguished young actors (it should be noted that SHE was the only one on the poster.)

In addition there have been several films with solid casts that just failed to make an impression on anyone. Therefore it seems that Piper is a competent, endearing actress with that unfortunate luck of reading a screenplay that seems solid, but fails in execution (Sarah Michelle Gellar anyone?) I like me an underdog, and I find her super charming, so lo and behold you have a recipe for fandom.

Consider my excitement last year when it was announced she would be the lead of a new USA hour-long action drama show, playing a rookie CIA agent in Covert Affairs. Perabo even got nominated for a Best Actress in Television Golden Globe last year! Often billed as being from the producers of the Bourne movies (which I can only recognize when the action scenes get so choppy and camera-shaky that I'm not sure what's going on) Covert Affairs turned out to be a steady, entertaining, well-made show right from the pilot. It is full of consistent, successful, easy humor, especially between Perabo and the beautiful Christopher Gorham, who have the best chemistry among a stellar cast and doubtless have been flooded with pleas for a romantic storyline.

Kari Matchett gives us an interesting portrait of a powerful woman while still being legitimately intimidating as department boss Joan Campbell, and the by-now-fairly-legendary Peter Gallagher plays her husband, a marriage fraught with as many secrets and communications issues as the CIA itself. Sendhil Ramamurthy (Heroes' Mohinder Suresh) is the only character who feels slightly unnecessary--I don't see him as a legitimate love interest for Annie, or a foil for Ben Mercer, but I expect his role will improve as his father continues to secretly connive against Arthur. The lovely Anne Dudek, who has proved her acting chops in several different productions (The Book Club, House, Mad Men, and many others) plays the stressed-young-mother, oblivious yet upbeat sister of Annie Walker. A lot like much of the dramatic tension in Alias, I eagerly await the day when Dudek discovers her sister's double-life.

Eion Bailey plays Ben Mercer, the center of the main sub-plot to the show. Years (months?) prior to the pilot, when we meet Annie, she had met Ben on vacation in Sri Lanka. They fell in love, had a whirlwind romance, and then he disappeared with only a note. Eager to bury her feelings and close herself off from that kind of pain again (though she's still remarkably optimistic and smiley) she trains to be a CIA agent. Joan Campbell, head of the Department of Defense (a fictional department I'm sure), pulls her in off the 'farm' when her training is not yet complete, seemingly for the sake of her massive language skills (Perabo is great at doing accents, like her British one in Imagine Me & You.) In truth, she is brought in as bait, in effect, to draw out Ben Mercer, who was a CIA agent that went rogue soon after he met (& apparently abandoned) Annie. The mystery of his true purpose and loyalty is the driving background plot of the show, and Annie's emotional meat.

There are refreshingly realistic fight scenes; Perabo's Annie Walker never Buffys out and defeats a 6ft2 Russian assassin effortlessly, much as I would like it, instead grappling uncomfortably until she figures out some resourceful way to knock him out or buying time until her partners can save her. Occasionally flashback scenes that intend to show the weight of Annie & Ben's love come off clunky and overacted, but one can forgive and forget that easily, considering the fast pace of the show.

The second season premiered this week, still with some of USA's best ratings, but down slightly from last year's premiere. It seems the writers and producers have decided to stick with what worked last year, and avoid any drastic changes. Despite the climactic ending of last season, by the end of the premiere they have basically restored the status quo with Mercer AWOL, Annie rather heartbroken but resilient, and Augie as her best bud and flying buttress of support.

Which is not to say the lack of risk-taking makes it dull. It is still a very enjoyable show, one that gives us the steadiness of a procedural (establish the problem, send Annie into it, physical conflict, and resolution) while attempting to tackle the morally grey areas of espionage without ever losing the perspective that true evil exists in this world, and it is a noble life to seek it out and fight it, no matter the personal sacrifices necessary.

Covert Affairs airs on Tuesdays at 10pm (Eastern) on USA Network. I recommend it. Support Piper Perabo!

Happy Friday.

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