Season Premiere — Covert Affairs, “Begin the Begin”

Although they are known for their lightweight, summery nature, I like basically all of USA’s series. I guess I’d have to like them a lot to write my entire MA thesis about them. But even though I’ll watch almost anything USA Network puts on the air, there is certainly a clear distinction between what I would consider its “good” series and everything else. On one hand you have Burn Notice, White Collar, Psych and probably In Plain Sight, all of which know what they are, but do a nice job of rising above the “summer escapism” of it all, if even a little. Everything else the network has to offer is more problematic and perhaps the most problematic of them all is Covert Affairs, based on potential alone.

I watched the entirety of Covert Affairs‘s first season, but if you check out the number of reviews I wrote, you can see my interested waned over the 11 episodes that aired. I generally enjoyed the pilot, but Affairs never, ever improved after that, and perhaps regressed a little bit by the end of the season. We could maybe place some blame on the USA programming formula that requires each of the series to have some long-running narrative arc, because Covert Affairs‘ version of that narrative trope is severely flawed and mostly innocuous. I like Eion Bailey, but a mysterious ex-lover weaving in and out of the life of Piper Perabo’s Annie Walker does not make for compelling overarching storytelling. There’s also something going on with a reporter and the possible leaks within the CIA, but even Peter Gallagher can’t make that story look good. In general, it feels like the series’ production team has no investment in building a longer story, and it shows in the final product.

But while the notion sent from above by USA’s template is part of Covert Affairs‘ problem, it certainly doesn’t help that the episodic plots are messy and boring as well. For a series about an impressive young spy in the field traveling the world, Covert Affairs is surprisingly boring. Annie is generally talented enough that the dangers never feel real, but there isn’t much else holding up the narrative either. This is a series with such an obvious hook, but there isn’t much here passed Piper Perabo’s smile and Christopher Gorham.

The season two premiere, “Begin the Begin” does absolutely nothing to subdue my boredom with the series. Like all USA Network products, it quickly tries to back away from the developments that came in the previous season finale, but here, they’re even more frivolous because I have such little investment in Annie and Ben’s relationship. Higher powers are manipulating the two of them and keeping them apart, which isn’t any different from what the series toyed with in the first season. Again, the whole thing seems like a half-assed attempt to keep an ongoing narrative present while not having to make Eion Bailey a series regular in the process. Ben will return, he and Annie will hook up and then he’ll probably leave again.

Elsewhere, this episode tries to remind us of a few other ongoing plots like Arthur’s issues with the leaked documents and Annie covering her tracks at home with her sister, but neither one was particularly engaging. Much like the ongoing narrative, Annie’s familial connections at home feel tacked-on as if they’re part of some USA edict and I think we can all agree that Anne Dudek deserves a lot more than being someone’s blissfully unaware sister on a mediocre cable series. Arthur’s problems could be interesting, but they are still so vague (“leaked documents,” oh no!) and abstract that the dangers that are apparently baring down on the CIA don’t feel too real. We have no idea how this impacts the lead characters or why they should care. The answer is probably that they shouldn’t.

And the thing is, all of those missteps would be bearable if the weekly assignment/case was even remotely interesting. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Annie goes undercover as a tennis pro’s assistant and there’s something about her connection to a Russian baddie, but it goes nowhere for much of the episode until the final twist is revealed and Annie gets to show off her impressive driving skills. Also, there’s a shoot-out on a tennis court during a tournament match. That’s hilariously dumb.

All and all, Covert Affairs doesn’t appear to be getting better. I’ll still be watching throughout the season and maybe I’ll occasionally check in if I feel like it is warranted, but don’t count on it. I don’t think I could even muster up enough enthusiasm to write about the series each week unless something drastically changes. Oh well.

Other thoughts:

  • I almost hate this series based on the opening titles alone. THE HORROR.
  • Christopher Gorham is so obviously the best thing about this series. USA would have been better off building a series around him than sticking him in sort of goofy role here (that he thankfully makes better).
  • And that’s the thing about this series. Everyone on the cast is a professional and generally likable — the writing just bores.
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