Case Number 21361

COVERT AFFAIRS: SEASON ONE

Universal // 2010 // 494 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Patrick Bromley // May 17th, 2011

The Charge

Single woman. Double life.

Opening Statement

Yet another USA original series mixing action, comedy, drama and espionage makes its way onto DVD just in time for Season Two to debut this summer.

Facts of the Case

Covert Affairs centers on the new CIA trainee Annie Walker (Piper Perabo, Coyote Ugly), who is recruited into the government agency for her impressive language skills. She's quickly thrown right into the deep end, working cases alongside blind agent and new BFF Auggie Anderson (Christopher Gorham, Ugly Betty). Heading up the Domestic Protection Division of the CIA is no-nonsense director Joan Campbell (Kari Matchett, Leverage), who -- wouldn't you know it? -- happens to be married to Arthur Campbell, Director of the National Clandestine Service (played by Peter Gallagher of The O.C.).

Here's a list of the 11 episodes that make up Covert Affaris: Season One:

* "Welcome to the CIA" (Pilot)
New CIA trainee Annie Walker (Perabo) is sent to a hotel to pose as a prostitute and collect information from a Russian spy, but when the spy is assassinated during the exchange -- and, worse, Annie fails to get the information -- things get very complicated very quickly.

* "Walter's Walk"
Annie is assigned to enter the life of a young savant and his protective mother when the boy appears to have legitimate CIA intelligence, but has to face off with a possible double agent.

* "South Bound Suarez"
Annie travels to Venezuela to convince the sister of a college student to help with a CIA case, despite the fact that the sister is dating a corrupt government agent.

* "No Quarter"
Annie teams with a Mossad agent (guest star Oded Fehr, The Mummy) to clear their names when an exchange goes wrong; the CIA investigates a leak who has been feeding information to a journalist.

* "In the Light"
The CIA taps Annie to convince a retired agent (Eriq La Salle, E.R.) to use his connections and help with a case involving stolen weapons entering the U.S.

* "Houses of the Holy"
Annie uses her Smithsonian cover to help expose a leak in the U.S. Senate, while at the same time suspecting her brother-in-law of infidelity. Lauren Holly (Dumb and Dumber) guest stars.

* "Communication Breakdown"
Auggie has to reconnect with his computer hacker ex when security in D.C. is compromised.

* "What Is and What Never Should Be"
Annie goes undercover as an art purchaser/gambler and discovers money being moved through art purchases; Ben Mercer returns. A grown-up Anna Chlumsky (My Girl) guest stars.

* "Fool in the Rain"
Annie is assigned with covering an Iranian delegate who is willing to hand over stolen information in exchange for CIA protection.

* "I Can't Quit You Baby"
Annie goes undercover with smugglers; the CIA brings back former head Henry Wilcox (Gregory Itzin, Law Abiding Citizen).

* "When the Levee Breaks"
Ben Mercer and Annie travel to Sri Lanka together on assignment; the CIA leak is revealed.

The Evidence

There's nothing that's really wrong with the USA original series Covert Affairs, but there's not much in it worth recommending, either. Like just about every show on the network, it's breezy and compulsively watchable, but Covert Affairs has less of a hook than its network counterparts. Burn Notice has a sense of place and lots of cool spy stuff (like MacGyver for the 2000s). Psych has comedy and a central buddy relationship. In Plain Sight has an interesting and compelling lead character. Covert Affairs tries to take pieces from each of these other shows, but comes up with a pretty unsatisfying mix that leaves it feeling generic. After eleven episodes, it either has yet to find a voice of its own or else has settled into a voice that's...well, comfortably voiceless.

The pilot sets things up well enough: it introduces us to Annie Walker, who is young and idealistic and actually excited about working for the CIA (as compared to the tortured Sydney Bristow of Alias, the show this one most resembles -- minus the edge and excitement, strong narrative and complex characterization). It throws her some curve balls and then requires her to possess the intellect and skill set to solve the problems in a way that's reasonably satisfying. If the rest of the series were able to build on the promise of its first episode, I would be recommending it wholeheartedly. Sadly, it's mostly downhill after that.

Problems begin almost immediately, as Covert Affairs backslides into case-of-the-week tedium in only its second episode. That's certainly not a dealbreaker; plenty of good shows are built around the same structure (and many of them are on the USA network, as a matter of fact). But Covert Affairs rarely comes up with a case that's interesting or involving; with the exception of two or three episodes, most of the shows feel like filler from a spy-show handbook. The episodes that stand out are the ones that examine, in some small way, the implications of Annie's work, whether it's forming a flirty but fleeting spy-on-spy relationship (with Moussad agent Oded Fehr) or having to gain the trust of a civilian only to have to burn the life that she knows (True Blood's Anna Kemp in "Houses of the Holy"). For the most part, though, the show sticks to dull procedural stuff with guest stars and characters that aren't colorful or memorable -- an issue that, unfortunately, spreads its way into the supporting cast as well. Chris Gorham's Auggie registers, but almost no one else; even the decision to have Peter Gallagher and Kari Matchett as a married couple heading competing divisions falls flat. Either the writers fail to mine the relationship for drama or they're trying for drama where there is none.

As a character, there's really nothing wrong with Annie Walker. That's the problem -- there's nothing wrong with Annie Walker. She's smart and capable and winning and pleasant (and I'm a Piper Perabo fan, having rooted for her since the one-two punch of Coyote Ugly and The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle in the early 2000s), but she's without any real dimension. The series attempts to pull double duty with the Ben Mercer storyline, which not only gives it a serialized season-length arc (which isn't interesting and doesn't work), but also gives Annie the only real bit of backstory we're going to get in Season One: she had her heart broken, and she's bummed out and a little guarded as a result. Not too guarded, of course, as the show quickly toys with the pairing of her and boss Jai Wilcox (Sendhil Ramamurthy of Heroes) in a plotline that goes nowhere. They have no chemistry together, and we could care less if they get together or not. In fact, the only character Annie does have any chemistry with is new best friend Auggie -- the scenes between Perabo and Gorham are fun and make for the show at its best -- and thankfully Covert Affairs keeps their relationship platonic. Give it time, of course, as no doubt the show will eventually give way to a lot of "will they/won't they" over time. If nothing else, the fans will demand it.

The 11 Season One episodes of Covert Affairs are spread out over three discs, all presented in their widescreen television aspect ratio of 1.78:1. The shows look good, with little to none of the compression that has plagued some USA shows in the past. For all its globe-trotting CIA intrigue, this is a very drab-looking show and shockingly cheap at times; Canadian locations are obvious substitutions for most of the locales, and more than one episode features some of the worst green screen work I've seen on TV (particularly in the London-based "What Is and What Never Should Be"). Still, the disc presents the series as bright and clean, and fans should find nothing to complain about. The 5.1 audio tracks are strong as well, with good low end and a nice mix of dialogue, music and the occasional shoot out. It's not as action-oriented as, say, Burn Notice, but when those sequences arrive this set gets the job done.

Several of the episodes come with audio commentaries from the likes of stars Piper Perabo and Christopher Goram, as well as series creators Matt Corman and Chris Ord. Executive producer Doug Liman even drops in for two commentaries (for the pilot and "Communication Breakdown"). Their discussions are fine, limited mostly to technical information and a little bit of joking around; only the most devoted fans of Covert Affairs will be at all interested. A handful of deleted scenes are also available on an episode-by-episode basis (there's no way to watch all the deleted material at once). On the third and final disc, there's an amusing gag reel and a few standard promotional featurettes: "Welcome to the Farm," "Blind Insight," "Celebrate the ADA" and a "Set Tour."

Closing Statement

Covert Affairs is a textbook example of a diversion: entertaining enough while it's on, but won't last in your memory longer than the time it takes you to remove the disc from your player. There are a number of elements in place for a decent-to-good show, but the series is unable to capitalize on them by the end of its first season. It's TV that you might leave on while scanning the channels in the summer months, but probably not strong enough to warrant a season-length box set purchase.

The Verdict

Guilty, but not by much. There's room for improvement in Season Two.

Review content copyright © 2011 Patrick Bromley; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC

Scales of Justice
Video: 84
Audio: 83
Extras: 40
Acting: 80
Story: 76
Judgment: 79

Perp Profile
Studio: Universal
Video Formats:
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic

Audio Formats:
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)

Subtitles:
* English (SDH)

Running Time: 494 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks
* Episode Commentaries
* Deleted Scenes
* Gag Reel
* Featurettes

Accomplices
* IMDb
http://us.imdb.com/title/tt1495708/combined

* Official Site
http://www.usanetwork.com/series/covertaffairs/