First things first. Covert Affairs is not Alias. That said, there are obvious similarities: in both series, a young, attractive woman is recruited to work for a super-secret section of the CIA, and immediately thrown into dangerous situations wearing skimpy outfits. There is a hint of a wider conspiracy brewing below the surface. Like Sidney Bristow, Annie Walker (Piper Perabo) seems adept at spy action. After watching her jump out of a plane at the Farm, the CIA’s top secret training facility, we learn that she has excelled at all the agency’s tests and is the best defensive driver ever to grace the halls of Langley. She’s so good that she is summoned to Washington for a special assignment weeks before she graduates.
You would think that someone with Walker’s skills would display a cocky confidence, but instead, every time she finds herself in a room with any authority figure, she turns kind of ditzy. At these times, she’s quite like Chuck‘s clueless hero, who is thrust into a life of intrigue against all his better instincts. It’s frankly hard to reconcile her brilliance as a field agent with the inarticulate confusion she shows on these occasions.
It would help if the writing was a bit sharper. Covert Affairs doesn’t seem that interested in getting the details right. Ostensibly, Walker is first called to Washington because she speaks six languages. But the special assignment requires someone who speaks Russian, as a spy is “coming in from the cold”—wouldn’t you think Russian has got to be the one language that the CIA has covered? Walker chooses to believe her new boss’ story that no one else in the CIA can speak Russian and pass as a call girl. Cue the tight dress.
Following this set-up, ensuing plot twists are telegraphed well in advance and don’t add up to much in the end. A car chase gives Walker an opportunity to show off those wonderful skills we’ve been told she has. But otherwise, the action is static.
Like so many pilot episodes, this one moves numerous characters into position for a longer game, but too little care has been paid to introducing them to entice the viewer to come back from more. Walker is given an unflappable and sarcastic handler, Auggie Anderson (Christopher Gorham), in place mainly to banter with her. She also spends some time with a smarmy CIA agent and a suspicious DC police detective. All three guys flirt shamelessly with Walker, and at times it feels like the show is a bizarre episode of The Bachelorette.
Rounding out Walker’s work life are a married spy couple, Arthur and Joan Campbell (Peter Gallagher and Kari Matchett). Joan is Walker’s boss, and Arthur is Joan’s boss. The martial strife on display in the pilot is intriguing. The Campbells might have been good leads for their own show, but they’re relegated to playing second fiddle to Walker here. The busy pilot also shoehorns in a visit with Walker’s sister, Danielle (Anne Dudek). For some unexplained reason, Walker lives with her sister’s family, which will undoubtedly lead to clichéd scenes of her lying to the ones she loves.
The array of secondary characters may pay off later in the series, but ultimately, this show depends on the charms of Perabo, whose first major role in Coyote Ugly came around the same time that Jennifer Garner debuted on Alias (and since then, her charms have sometimes been actively confounded, as in The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle). Perabo shows herself capable of playing Walker tough or sweet, clueless or competent. Unfortunately, in the span of a single episode, she’s asked to do all of the above.