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COVERT AFFAIRS (USA)
(Tuesdays at 10:00/9:00c beginning tonight)
The network's description: "In COVERT AFFAIRS, USA's newest original series, we meet Annie Walker (Piper Perabo), a young CIA trainee who is suddenly thrust into the inner sanctum of the agency after being promoted to field operative. While it appears that she has been hand-picked for her exceptional linguistic skills, it may be something from her past that her CIA bosses are really after. Christopher Gorham plays Auggie Anderson, a CIA military intelligence agent, blinded while on assignment, and Annie's guide in this world of bureaucracy, excitement and intrigue. Peter Gallagher is Arthur Campbell, the formidable director of Clandestine Services for the CIA. Sendhil Ramamurthy plays Jai Wilcox, an agent with a rich family history within the walls of the CIA. Anne Dudek plays Danielle, a married mother of two and Annie's older sister who knows nothing of Annie's life as a spy. Kari Matchett plays Joan, head of the CIA's Domestic Protection Division...and Arthur's wife."
What did they leave out? Eric Lively's character, Conrad Sheehan, is being written out of the series, to be replaced by Sendhil Ramamurthy's Jai Wilcox. Also, as is custom with USA's pilots, it will run just over an hour and 15 minutes.
The plot in a nutshell: CIA trainee/linguistics expert Annie Walker (Piper Perabo) is in the final month of her training for the Agency. Among her remaining hurdles: a polygraph designed to see if she will be able to keep her work and personal lives separate. Said questions bring up memories of her last serious relationship: Ben Mercer (Eion Bailey), an American she met two years ago while traveling in Sri Lanka. It seems, despite three weeks of bliss together, he inexplicably walked out on her, leaving behind only a cryptic note saying "the truth is complicated." However, before she can complete the aforementioned training, Joan Campbell (Kari Matchett), the razor-sharp head of the DPD (Domestic Protection Division), unexpectedly summons her to Langley.
There she's given the lay of the land by Auggie Anderson (Christopher Gorham), a blind tech operative, not to mention finds herself quickly attracted to fellow agent Conrad Sheehan (Eric Lively). Ultimately she's brought up to speed on the DPD's latest quandary: "Stas," a Russian operative in town wants to defect and they need someone to meet him at his hotel under unofficial auspices. Joan's plan: have Annie pretend to be a call girl and download his intel to her BlackBerry. Not surprisingly things go sideways rather quickly as Stas is murdered by a sniper's bullet and Annie inadvertently leaves the intel behind while trying to escape. Now it's up to her to recover said device, a task that becomes all the more difficult with DC police and FBI flooding the crime scene, not to mention an assassin that's still at large.
Meanwhile we learn Joan is married to Arthur Campbell (Peter Gallagher), the dogged director of the Clandestine Service, and the two are trying to save their rocky marriage through Agency-provided couples' counseling. He in turn is hunting for a leak at the CIA who's providing classified information to a reporter. And if that wasn't enough, Annie has a sister, Danielle (Anne Dudek, in a thankless role), who's perpetually trying to fix her up so she can get married and be a mom like herself. It's a personal and professional gauntlet for Annie as the threat of not just washing out but heartbreak springs from every corner.
What works: There's a lot of compelling elements in the DNA of the show: whether it's how 50% of the agents have less than five years of experience due to a pre-9/11 hiring freeze, how the Agency encourages their operatives to date each other to save them the trouble of vetting potential outsiders or how CIA agents don't have badges and therefore can't behave like your typical cops. It's enough to make you wish...
What doesn't: ...the resulting series wasn't so frustrating. "Covert Affairs" is by far the weakest pilot to come from USA in recent memory. That's not to say it's irredeemable, it's just in light of its network brethren - all of which seemed to come out of the gate distinctly aware of the kinds of stories they wanted to tell - "Affairs" comes off as disappointingly unfocused and unsure of itself. First and foremost, Annie Walker doesn't seem particularly unique or all that compelling. Even she herself seems confused by why she's been given the spotlight so quickly as apparently the entire CIA is out of pretty girls who can speak Russian.
"There is [someone else]," Joan reveals when Annie asks just that. "She's gone. Let's leave it at that." Even taking that as gospel, was this really the only way to get the intel from him? Said development is just one of many improbable shortcuts the show takes in the name of getting its boilerplate spy elements off the ground. Hell, even when the reasons for the Company's interest in Annie are revealed, they ultimately prove to be far too trite and obvious, especially in light of the show's roughshod relationship elements.
Things like Joan going from icy dictator in public to jealous nutcase behind closed doors never quite connect as the show frequently shifts gears between professional competence to personal tomfoolery with each passing scene. All in all, there's potential for a show somewhere in here, one that's lost in its ill-defined characterizations, rocky tonal shifts and silly spy mechanizations...
The bottom line: ...but a show nonetheless.