Stars Piper Perabo and Christopher Gorham discuss pilot
Behind the Screens with Joshua Maloni
If you ask me, "Alias" was one the best action/adventure capers of all time -- and way ahead of its time. Jennifer Garner, who brilliantly portrayed scorned CIA agent Sydney Bristow, set the mold for today's female butt-kickers.
"Covert Affairs," the USA Network's newest cops-and-robbers-style skein, has been likened to "Alias" since it first went into production last year. And why not? It does, after all, center on a heartbroken female CIA agent (Piper Perabo) with a penchant for hand-to-hand combat.
But, while both series feature attractive female leads spying in over-the-top outfits, with the backing of affable, tech-heavy handlers, they are distinctly different shows.
In "Alias," Sydney was recruited to the CIA based on aptitude tests, family ties and mythology. On "Covert Affairs," Perabo's Annie Walker joins Camp Clandestine in search of a new challenge -- and a distraction from a whirlwind romance gone awry.
And, whereas Sydney was a complete natural at the spy game, Annie is very much learning the ropes.
Christopher Gorham, who portrays charming CIA analyst Auggie, said that's "part of what makes Annie so likable ... is you can really route for her because she doesn't have it all figured out."
"She's learning on the job and ... so you really get behind her and want her to succeed, because you don't know for sure if she's going to," he said in a phone interview.
The "Covert Affairs" pilot begins with Annie recounting her lost love, Ben Mercer (Eion Bailey), and the feelings she's still sorting out.
Barely into her CIA training, Annie is rushed into a real-world situation. Because of her keen ear for languages -- not to mention good looks -- she is called into duty to handle (babysit?) a foreign assassin-turned-informant. When the situation turns deadly, Annie discovers there's more to the case than she originally expected.
Auggie is a constant presence at Annie's side. Though blind, he offers her an unmatched view into the life of a spy. Like Marshall on "Alias," Auggie has some nifty gadgets -- including a laser pointer.
Mercer appears to make a surprise drop in toward the end of the episode. Annie isn't quite sure if it's really him, or just her mind playing tricks. Unbeknownst to her, Mercer has a past with the CIA. Exactly what that entails, we're not sure at this point. ... And neither is Perabo.
"I think I know less than I knew when we started. As I've seen more of the Ben Mercer character, it's gotten muddier about whose side he's on," she said. "So I think, somebody asked me the other day if we're going to find out who he is by the end of this season, and even I don't know that. It's definitely getting -- it's getting more complicated than less, with him."
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Both "Alias" and "Covert Affairs" boast high-powered show runners. The former came from J.J. Abrams ("Lost," "Star Trek"), while the latter is a product of Doug Liman (the "Bourne" trilogy, "Mr. and Mrs. Smith") and Dave Bartis ("The O.C.," "The Heist").
Each show, however, took a different path into our living rooms.
"Alias" was broadcast on Big Four network ABC, where ratings dictated when and where it would be shown. "Covert Affairs" has the good fortune of debuting on the USA Network, which has established itself as the No. 1 pay cable station thanks to creative programming (think "Monk," "Psych," "Burn Notice," "Royal Pains," "White Collar").
"I think the way that they run their network ... is really smart," Gorham said. "I mean, it starts with development, and they only develop a very small group of shows and then they only shoot a couple pilots a year. Which is why I think they've had such a high success rate, because they only really get behind the stuff that they believe in.
"So, I mean for me, I think it's an incredible opportunity. I'm really excited. And on top of that, the show's turning out great. So, yeah, we have really high hopes."
Perabo, making her small screen debut, is pleasantly surprised with the process.
"This is my first foray into a series, so I don't have a lot to compare it to. But when I compare it with films that I've done, it feels of equal caliber," she said. "It seems like every episode that we do is like a mini movie, with the amount of stunts and cameras and shots that we're trying to achieve. So in that way I think it's going to make for really exciting television."
Disenchanted with film scripts coming her way, Perabo said, "When this came across my desk, not only did it have the pedigree of Doug Liman, but it was a character that I thought would be really fun to play. And even fun to play, you know, episode after episode, and how it would evolve and change.
"And I talked with the boys a lot about how Annie would evolve. But I even sort of like not knowing specifically where the story's going. You know, when you make a film, you kind of know where you're going for the whole arc of the story when you begin. But in this arc, I can't see the end yet.
"And so it makes for a whole different kind of work. And I didn't expect that, and I'm really enjoying that about having, you know, started on the series."
Much like the James Bond movies, "Covert Affairs" offers a stylish team of agents capable of outsmarting their adversaries, always ready with a quip, and unafraid to mix business with pleasure. Unlike James Bond, or Sydney Bristow, however, Annie Walker is the closest we've come to seeing an actual CIA agent at work.
"I went down to Langley for the day. (CIA agent) Valerie Plame Wilson was our technical advisor on the pilot," Perabo said. "And so we have connections down there. And so I spent the day down there and met agents who are the same age as Chris and I, and talked with them about their lives and what's going on. And you know, a lot of the things that we're drawing on from the show are based in kind of the dirty details of reality."
"Covert Affairs" debuts Tuesday, July 13, at 10 p.m. on the USA Network. For more information, visit http://usanetwork.com/series/covertaffairs.