The Spy Story As Workplace Dramady
TV Review: Covert Affairs
Judging from the pilot, USA has another winning spy series in their line-up–a worthy stable mate for Burn Notice. I really enjoyed the first episode of Covert Affairs. There’s a lot of Alias in it–and a dash of Sex and the City for the ladies, in the form of name-dropping high end fashion and shoe brands–but Covert Affairs’ unique contribution to the genre is that it begins at the beginning, on rookie agent Annie Walker’s (The Prestige's Piper Perabo) first day on the job. We get a brief taste of her training on the CIA’s famous “farm,” but then she’s pulled out early for mysterious reasons and put straight on the job. This way, the audience is introduced to the CIA the same way as Annie. She’s got first day jitters, and messes up matters of basic routine, like trying (and failing) to pass through the turnstyles before she’s gotten her access badge. She meets an intimidating new boss, engages in exploratory flirtations with co-workers, tries to find her (Louboutin-clad) footing in an unfamiliar and intimidating environment–all the trials and tribulations of starting a new job that any viewer can relate to, only moreso, because she’s working at the CIA!
I’ve always responded to the “workplace drama” (or, in this case, “dramady”) side of the spy genre. Many of my favorite genre entries focus as much on office politics and the hurdles of petty bureaucracy as they do on the formalities of espionage: The Sandbaggers, Queen and Country and the entire oeuvre of John Le Carré, to name but a few. I think the secret of Le Carré’s popularity, in fact, is that he hit upon a unique way to make workplace drama and office politics exciting. Everyone in the world can relate to the machinations of nefarious co-workers, but they’d be boring to read about if the stakes weren’t as high as the very fate of the nation. Covert Affairs is much, much lighter fare than Le Carré, but taps into that same vein of spy story as workplace dramady.
Even the requisite office entanglements of a workplace dramadey that can easily go so wrong (see: 24) are handled well in the pilot. I was amused and engrossed by the rocky and competitive relationship between two married CIA officers and rival department heads, Joan (Kari Matchett) and Arthur (the great Peter Gallagher) Campbell. She’s convinced that he’s cheating on her and uses Agency resources in an attempt to prove it, but the talented actors play that in a believable and humorous way, so it doesn’t stretch credulity the way that everybody sleeping with everybody else does at CTU. In fact, the writing is quite clever when Arthur calls Joan on her dubious tactics:
“You’re using valuable Agency resources to track me.”
“That’s not a denial.”
“Why can’t you be a good CIA wife and just trust me?”
“Because I’m not a CIA wife. I’m a wife who works for the CIA.”
a movie about her life. (I’m frankly surprised that the network’s publicity didn’t play up this angle more.) Of course, no espionage television series is ever going to do much more than pay lip service to the reality of the job before moving onto the sort of shoot-em-up hijinks that we’re all clamoring to see. I now present said lip service verbatim, which comes after Annie has been fired upon by a sniper while on her very first assignment.
Joan: You know, some operatives go an entire career without seeing a bullet fired.
Annie: Is that supposed to make me feel better?
Joan: It’s supposed to make you realize this is unusual.
We’ll see just how unusual such occurrences prove to be in subsequent episodes, but I’m guessing they happen at least weekly. And I wouldn’t have it any other way, of course. After all, I do want escapist action from my spy TV as well as relatable office intrigue!
When it comes, that action is generally well-handled. The scene in which the sniper shoots up a hotel room–with Annie in it–is visceral enough to belie the show’s Bourne pedigree (again through Liman), and a car chase is excitingly shot as well. (During it, however, Annie mutters things to herself like, “D.E.C. Method: Determine, Evade, Counterpursuit,” which kind of made me long for Michael Westen’s voiceovers instead–a much better delivery mechanism for such tradecraft secrets.) A skydiving sequence amidst which the opening titles unfold is particularly breathtaking, with aerial footage as good as any I’ve ever seen on TV.
Scarecrow and Mrs. King (excepting, perhaps, the extremely short-lived 1991 series Under Cover), so it’s still pretty original.
Perhaps owing to the current incarnation of 007 himself, the same trendsetter who made gadgets ubiquitous in all spy series for decades, there are no gadgets present in Covert Affairs’ pilot (and no Q or Marshall character), but Annie’s blessed with Jason Bourne’s talent for improvising, and using everyday objects to her advantage. She uses her compact against the sniper, and it’s not the kind of compact that doubles as a transmitter or anything. She also uses a Listerine breath strip to trick a thumbprint reader, and then sticks it in her mouth, which struck me as being more gross than cool. (You know how many people must stick their germy thumbs on that thing every day? Never mind that this particular facility was a morgue!) And she even manages to find a spy use for those Louboutin platforms that are so frequently mentioned by name and focused on. (This show has all the product placement we expect of our spy entertainment: Starbucks, Opentable.com, BMW and all those brand name fashions and fragrances.) Yes, Annie’s a pretty capable gal, and she even finds a use for her language skills that were ostensibly the reason she was pulled out of training and activated early. I do wish that the linguistic “clue” she picks up on that advances the spy plot in the 3rd Act had been more clever, though. The one they use smacks of the sort of lazy writing you might be able to get away with in the middle of the second season, but not in your pilot! I’ll give it a pass, though, since it was embedded amidst so much commendable material.
Also commendable is the topical plot device of Russians carrying out assassinations of their own on foreign soil, Litvinenko-style (although like most modern spy shows, they seem to mix up the Russian intelligence services FSB and the SVD). I like that, and the pilot gives every indication that we’ll continue to see topical, ripped-from-the-headlines sorts of spy plots rather than shadowy cabals in pursuit of mystical artifacts, further differentiating this series from Alias.