Jul 16, 2010

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.

The stellar production design by Production Designer Franco De Cotiis, Art Director Aleks Marinkovich and Set Decorator Zeljka Alosinac further reinforce the notion of Covert Affairs as foremost a workplace series. I loved their CIA sets, which manage to seem very “workplace-y” as well as spy-ish with the requisite futurism, but not too much of it. This steel cubicle-filled CIA interior looks like a place where people would actually work, with just a hint of Ken Adamish spy vibe lurking in the details.

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.”

Of course, there’s still leeway for everyone to sleep with everyone else in future episodes, but based on the pilot I have faith in the writers and actors to handle it well. The groundwork for a young, attractive, oversexed CIA is carefully laid out here when Annie’s Dixon (which is to say the man on the other end of the radio when she’s on missions), Auggie (Christopher Gorham), informs her that the CIA was on a hiring freeze before 9/11, so now half the employees have under five years' experience (or something like that). Furthermore, the Agency encourages dating within for security reasons. How convenient! But it rings true. In fact, many details about this CIA ring fairly true, by television standards. This may be because one of the Agency’s most famous former employees, Valarie Plame-Wilson (to whom Matchett actually bares a more than passing resemblance), serves as the technical advisor, no doubt through her connection to executive producer Doug Liman, who made 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.

Covert Affairs certainly isn’t without cliches, but it gets most of them out of the way right up front, intercut within a lie detector test framing device that (quite cleverly, actually) tells us all the backstory we need to know about Annie. We see a three-week romance with a mystery man who’s bound to play a big role down the line (in fact, we glimpse him again later, in a very different context), and it unfolds in nothing but cliches: running on a beach, candle-lit sex, a parting note explaining little. Auggie is blind and that’s every bit as precious as you fear it will be, but the story behind his blindness isn’t bad (he already worked for the CIA when he was blinded by an IED in Iraq) and Gorham sells it well enough (even all those tired Daredevil tropes like identifying a woman by her perfume) that by the end of the episode it just seems natural. The producers carefully avoid my least favorite spy show cliche, typified in Alias with everyone important working out of “the CIA’s Los Angeles branch.” No, Annie’s CIA is actually in Langley, and the show is set in and around Washington DC (or at least Toronto’s decent approximation thereof, mixed in with some establishing shots of key landmarks) rather than asking us to believe that the real epicenter of America’s intelligence community is LA or, in the case of USA’s other spy hit, Miami. However, they still contrive a way for Annie to undertake assignments right here in the US of A, despite the CIA’s mission statement to the contrary: she works for a made-up section called the “Domestic Protection Division” which operates on American soil and is so top secret we’re not meant to have heard of it. Oh well. For the sake of the show, I’ll buy it. And I don’t think we’ve had a regularly Washington-set spy series since 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.

As is no doubt evident, I was fully hooked from the pilot for Covert Affairs. It’s a light spy dramady that manages to separate itself from its obvious influences by the means of a fairly unique premise focusing on the CIA as a workplace. It’s a story about a somewhat naive, but capable when it counts (not to mention fashion-savvy) young woman navigating the difficult waters of a new job, and that job just happens to entail posing as a prostitute and getting shot at. And it takes its spying pretty seriously for the most part, which isn’t really that common in the light and fluffy school of espionage television. Covert Affairs is a welcome addition to an ever-growing current roster of spy shows on the verge of equaling the genre’s Sixties preponderance. USA is sure to re-run the pilot throughout the weekend, so set your DVR and give it a try if you haven’t already.

1 comment:

Brian Drake said...

I agree with 99% of this review; I'll disagree with your comment that the language gimmick used by the writers wasn't all that great. I thought it worked very well, and I'm sure we will see that professor again when Annie goes back to him, as she almost has to do, and tells him how right he was about the Agency being exactly what he described. I'll put money down that the scene takes place in the finale episode after a particularly harrowing operation where her Ice Crystal boss does another one of her tough-as-nails (because bosses come no other way) and cynical after-mission remarks.