USA Network has established itself as the master of smartly entertaining TV drama, not just on cable but on all of TV. Starting with Monk at the beginning of the decade and steadily adding a solid lineup of hit shows such as Psych, Burn Notice, Royal Pains, and White Collar, USA has reminded both audiences and the industry that good, old-fashioned, relatively wholesome entertainment that conveyed sound values was the real key to success with audiences.
The latest addition to the network’s roster of original drama programming, Covert Affairs (Tuesdays, 10 p.m. EDT), is another solid entertainment with something more. Taking up the 1960s-style adventure formula of current shows such as Fringe and Human Target, the show refreshes the genre by creating realistic moral dilemmas for the characters, without indulging in the sort of flamboyantly gloomy agonizing over the morality of the spy game that has made the genre increasingly boring since John Le Carre introduced it in the early ’60s and began flogging it to death.
The central characters are Annie Walker (Piper Perabo), a new CIA agent in her late twenties. Annie is brave, tenacious, devoted to her duty, and attractive. The same is true of her colleague, Auggie Anderson, who heads technical operations in the CIA office, having been blinded while serving in Afghanistan. Importantly, however, Auggie refuses to indulge in any self-pity about his blindness. Instead, his wit and positive attitude add to his appeal for Annie and other women.
As that makes clear, the characters in Covert Affairs are too American to imitate Le Carre’s tortured antiheroes; instead, they simply add some emotional depth to type of stylish, good-natured, largely optimistic TV heroes that were popular in the mid-1960s, such as Alexander Mundy (Robert Wagner) of It Takes a Thief and the globetrotting espionage agents of I Spy played by Bill Cosby and Robert Culp. That allows Covert Affairs to be entertaining without becoming pointless fluff.
Each episode of Covert Affairs deals with a threat to national security, and although the show does depict instances of backstabbing and political double-dealing within the CIA and between the agency and other government offices, the purpose of the organization is shown as honorable and its mission worthy of the ideals of the show’s two young main characters.
As the show’s title might suggest, Covert Affairs continually explores the way public affairs are influenced by the private lives of the people involved. The pilot episode, for example, opens with a scene in which Annie is asked highly personal questions by a polygraph examiner, to determine whether a personal relationship in which she was involved before joining the agency might interfere with her accomplishing her duties.
Despite clearly being conflicted about it, she assures him that she’ll be able to put her feelings aside as necessary. Her boss, Joan Campbell (Kari Matchett), has an even thornier tangle of personal and professional duties: she’s married to the director of clandestine services, Arthur Campbell (Peter Gallagher), and each must keep secrets from the other in order to do their jobs effectively, which understandably puts strains on their marriage.
Episode 6, ‘Houses of the Holy,” deals with similar themes. Annie is assigned to investigate a U.S. Senator suspected of leaking national security secrets to foreign nations. The real reason for the leaks involves a series of personal betrayals, however, and all of those who have betrayed one another pay a heavy price for their wrongs.
Similarly, episode 7, “Communication Breakdown,” explores how espionage agencies use the creation of personal relationships–including sexual ones–in order to extract information from a targeted person; it realistically portrays the moral dilemmas involved in such activities. In the course of the episode, the personal feelings engendered by two of these relationships place an agent in mortal danger and at risk of career disaster.
The episode also presents interesting arguments between two of the characters about cyber security, intellectual property rights, and Internet freedom. The episode exemplifies how skillfully Covert Affairs balances ideas and action.
An interesting thing about the show is the variety of threats to the national security that are in play at any particular time. That strikes me as rather realistic, in suggesting that government security agencies avert a good many crises without the public ever knowing about it. And there is nothing necessarily sinister in that secrecy, given that allowing such information out to the public would also make it available to potential enemies. But of course such a culture of covertness creates a temptation for abuse, as the secrecy affords an agency the power to cover up mistakes and malfeasance.
These are concerns that Covert Affairs brings up in dramatic terms, and the show’s treatment of the issues indicates a distinct awareness that the dilemmas involved are unavoidable and that the power we give government in the name of security can backfire. That reflects–and reinforces–a healthy skepticism toward government in general, an attitude especially precious in this time of rapid expansion of government power.