Ever since shows like Alias and 24 have helped set the bar for episodic television shows with spies and espionage in general, virtually everyone who has been ambitious enough has wanted to try and bring their own interpretation to television. Covert Affairs is the latest one to try and show the public what they have, but the differentiating factor in this is that the show's executive producer is Doug Liman, whose background with the spy and suspense genre is self-explanatory with his helming of The Bourne Trilogy. So how does this show stack up?
Annie Walker (Piper Perabo, Coyote Ugly) is a young CIA operative in training when she is suddenly promoted to the agency's Domestic Protection Division (or DPD), where she is suddenly put into high-risk missions at the command of Joan Campbell (Kari Matchett, Crash). She manages to navigate through the intricacies of her missions with the help of Augie (Christopher Gorham, Ugly Betty), who works for the Agency after an incident in the field when he was a Special Forces soldier cost him his sight. While Annie doesn't know why she was called up from the farm so early, it might have something to do with a torrid relationship with a man from her past that may be connected to the agency somehow. Annie tries to piece that together with some help from Augie and of Jai (Sendhil Ramamurthy, Heroes), the latter of whom might have an ulterior motive or two.
The show does what it can to go to a variety of international locations while staying on the Toronto soundstage where the series is shot and the episode stories, yet the story doesn't feel too different than Alias, which also featured a female spy. Moreover what made Alias the better show is that main character Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner) was a more sympathetic a character than Annie was. At the very least, Garner's character was put into a more vulnerable position and her acting abilities combined with some good writing) made for some compelling viewing each week. Annie (combined with Perabo's range, which isn't as broad as Garner's) is just a gal who was stood up after a really nice time in Sri Lanka, and her entrance into the CIA is told in a slightly clunky manner. I was less impressed with her performance and more with Gorham's, who conveys a vision-impaired person rather effectively, and the exposition he received through the season is a lot more entertaining than whatever Annie goes through.
There is a small cavalcade of veteran television actors that round out the show's first season (yep, a second is to air on the USA network shortly as of this writing), including Peter Gallagher (Burlesque), who plays Joan's husband (and boss) in the CIA who is trying to defend himself against a bureaucratic coup of sorts, headed by a reluctant Joan. He brings a little gravitas to the show, though he doesn't spend much time on screen. Anne Dudek plays Annie's married sister Danielle, in a role similar to what she did in Mad Men as Betty Draper's friend. A good shoulder to lean on, even if you're not completely honest with her.
However, in an era where the show's premise looks like Alias and its opening credit sequence looks a lot like NBC's Chuck, after eight hours and eleven episodes, I'm still left wondering just what it is that the show's creators want to do in Covert Affairs. If it's meant to humanize some of the agents who serve the CIA (as is said multiple times in the supplements) I understand it, but it comes off looking uneventful. And it's hard to strike a balance of humanizing the agents without being melodramatic, and that's what the show looks like. Combined with the performance of a lead who lacks charisma and (if I may be so bold) beauty, what is there to Covert Affairs? I'll stick to watching spy shows of the 2000s and enjoy them a lot more than I did this.
Spread over three discs, all 11 episodes of Covert Affairs are presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen and look good, or at least look as good as they could be. Flesh tones look normal, the source material is clean and free of artifacts or dirt. The show has a tendency to blow out the whites behind the actors during a scene, sometimes this is done for purposeful effect, and other times it's because they are in front of a green screen. It's a little annoying but otherwise the show is all nice and purty on standard definition.
Dolby Digital 5.1 surround for all episodes. This sounds about as good as I expected it to be, starting early in the pilot when Annie is dodging sniper fire in a hotel room and the bullets come from all around in the front channels with some in the rear. There are even some explosions that help flush out the low-end portion of the soundtrack, though the subwoofer stays dormant for virtually all of the season. There aren't enough moments of channel panning to make this a truly effective sound option, but it is still quite strong as is.
Deleted scenes and commentaries are lightly dusted through the discs, with the longer extras being housed on the third disc. The deleted scenes (27, 18:30) appear on six of the show's eleven episodes, however they are mostly quick hits and/or flesh out inconsequential story points, and really don't add anything to the overall show or individual episodes. There are commentaries on three of the episodes, mainly from Perabo, Gorham, Liman, show runners Chris Ord and Matt Corman and executive producer Dave Bartis. In the pilot, the group points out some scene trivia and some production sequences, along with their intent for the show. Liman offers praise in select portions of the show and the group shares their thoughts on what each brought to the table. In the show's seventh episode "Communication Breakdown" (save for the pilot, all of the episodes are titled from Led Zeppelin songs), Gorham brings some questions from Facebook fans to the party, with some slight clues as to what might occur in the second season. As the episode is focused on Augie, Gorham's contributions to the track are many and well-valued. On the finale titled "When the Levee Breaks" the group spends more time watching the show than on previous tracks, but still sets aside time to spot a continuity error here and there, along with some joking with each other about the production. The tracks aren't revealing and are barely informative, but fans of the show may like them.
The other extras are quick and painless. A gag reel (2:22) shows a series of takes where the actors loosen up before 'action,' along with the usual round of flubbed lines. "Welcome to the Farm" (13:40) is a making-of featurette where the cast and crew discuss what they think the show is and what they want it to be. Casting choices are recalled and the actors talk about what they think of one another and the show, and the challenges of making a show with international locales is given some attention too (along with the rigors of the action scenes). "Blind Insight" (4:02) is where Gorham shares his approach and research to making Augie's condition so convincing, and there is a PSA he appears in that highlights the Americans With Disabilities Act (:40). Ramamurthy hosts a tour of the set, but at 13:51 it runs five minutes too long and is almost painful to watch at times.
The first season of Covert Affairs may make for entertaining and escapist television if you wish to put your head down and not think about it, but it's hard to get over the feeling that the show is lacking anything convincing to say or even how to say what they want. From a DVD package perspective is has the usual bells and whistles, but if you're looking for an entertaining spy-centered production, there are better ones out there than this.