This summer, populist television enthusiast Juliet Litman is watching the best shows that the fan-loved, yet often critically overlooked USA Network has to offer. Each week, she'll give you a rough guide to the lawyers, spies, and rogue medical practitioners on summer's favorite channel.
Finally, a USA show about a girl. Covert Affairs returned last week for its third season, and two episodes in, we've seen three different countries and one bombing. This season has already distinguished itself from previous seasons and the rest of the network's offerings.
This is the show for you if you like: The Bourne movies and the Mary Tyler Moore Show. Like her network brother Michael Westen from Burn Notice, Annie Walker (Piper Perabo) works for the CIA, but her relationship with the agency is not so complicated. She's a savvy agent with a penchant for ignoring directives, yet she somehow always lands on her feet. As for the Bourne comparison, that's a no brainer: the show's executive producer Doug Liman produced all three of the Matt Damon movies and directed the first one. The middle of every episode is filled with some sort of action sequence, and Annie's signature red car may even be a nod to the epic car chase in The Bourne Identity.
Annie's got the pluck of the aforementioned Mary Tyler Moore, and I'm pretty sure she finds time to throw a triumphant beret up in the air wherever her CIA work takes her. But if MTM was a fairly chaste single girl in the city — Mary was hardly sleeping her way across Minneapolis — Annie is basically the female James Bond. Her feminine wiles are as important as anything she learned "on the farm." It only took one episode this season for us to get a steamy shower scene.
The person you are most likely to recognize from a previous show or movie: The cast of Covert Affairs allows me to believe that my halcyon teen years never ended. We've got: Piper Perabo, stage frightened singer/songwriter in Coyote Ugly as our lead; Peter Gallagher (A.K.A. television's best dad, Sandy Cohen) as a high-ranking CIA guy; and Christopher Gorham, the tragic good guy from Popular, as Annie's blind
confidant and coworker. Compared to some other USA stars, these three are easily recognizable. The true "how do I know her?" actress on this show is Anne Dudek. To me, she's Albie Grant's accomplice and third wife from the under-appreciated Big Love. To you, she may be Betty Draper's gossipy friend from the first two seasons of Mad Men. On this show, she plays Piper Perabo's motherly sister who recently found out Annie does not work for the Smithsonian Institute. Second place in this category is journeywoman Kari Matchett, who was on season six of 24. I did not watch that show (too preoccupied with WB shows to get in at the ground level of that one), but if you're already well-versed in CIA action on TV, maybe you saw her there.
The basic plot you need to know: In this season's premiere (last week's episode), CIA officer Jai Wilcox (played by Sendhil Ramamurthy from Heroes) was assassinated. Immediately before his death, he met Annie at a diner and was about to divulge some top secret information about the CIA. Luckily for Annie, she forgot her umbrella in the diner and thus did not die in the car-bomb explosion. This event has now set a series of plot lines in motion:
1. Annie has been reassigned to a new unit. She has left the DPD (Domestic Protection Division) desk in favor of an edgier new department. It's like she left her traditional high school for a new, progressive charter school that encourages alternative methods of learning. Her new boss is played by Sarah Clarke, also a 24 alum, and she's sure to clash with old boss Kari Matchett's Joan.
2. Christopher Gorham's character, Auggie, has also left the DPD. He is now the head of the Office of Special Projects, taking over for the dead guy.
3. Annie is investigating a Russian in Marrakech who has some mysterious neck tattoo that matches a symbol seen on a file box that Auggie was holding. They haven’t made this connection yet.
4. Because of the assassination, everyone is being monitored — including (and unbeknownst to him) Peter Gallagher. However, his wife Joan (she is also Annie's old boss at the DPD) knows, BUT WILL SHE TELL HIM? We shall see.
As if this weren't enough, Annie is in love with Auggie, but he's planning to propose to someone else. Why didn't Annie realize sooner that she loved him? Eh, let's not go there.
Final argument: For the most part, Team USA shows have two levels of plot: the season-long arc and the episode-long arc. This gives loyal fans broader themes to follow while also allowing the casual viewer to jump in at any point. Covert Affairs went off-script last week when the Russian-spy-in-Morocco story was left open-ended. Annie may have been back at Langley at the start of the season, but that storyline is far from wrapped up. Though it also has its share of impossibly blue skies, this show distinguishes itself from the rest of the (delightful) USA crop by committing to relatively higher-level storytelling and richer characters.
The addition of Sarah Clarke as Lena Smith this season is already paying off. Her clashes with Joan introduce a new relationship that is neither romantic nor already covered in the show. It's not exactly a Peggy Olson-Joan Holloway-Megan Calvet triumvirate here, but the Annie-Lena-Joan dynamics are more provocative than any of the show's — maybe even the network's — other relationships.
If I still haven't convinced you, just remember that you can't fight the moonlight. Or Covert Affairs.