Anatomy of a Spy Show

We watch television differently now. We watch it on our computers. We watch it days or even weeks after it airs on DVRs. We wait for a season to wrap up before renting the whole thing and devouring it in a single go. This isn’t really news to anyone, except possibly my mother who is still unclear about this whole youtube thing. The only reason I bring this up is because reviewing a show after its entire first season run isn’t completely insane anymore. After a full season, you get a better idea of where a show is going, what it’s trying to do and whether or not it succeeds. Making it through an entire season is a sign that a show isn’t totally a lost cause. Which brings me to Covert Affairs.

I love spy shows. Alias, Burn Notice, Chuck, and Archer all rank among my favorites. If there’s a surefire way to get me to watch a new show, it’s a preview that says “in the deadly world of espionage.”

The other phrase that works is "starring Kristen Bell."

Spy shows that work tend to hit the same beats. The subject matter is similar on the surface, no matter if it’s a relatively straight drama like Alias or a blasphemous descent into the ninth level of comedy like Archer. Missions provide the framework for an episode. The main cast forms a team of heroic spies, each with a specialty. In the hour-long post-Twin Peaks television landscape, the show will have a mythology, usually concerning an enemy organization (like SD-6 or Fulcrum) with a reoccurring guest star as the boss monster. Covert Affairs is trying to buck this trend and, like me, it’s not working out.

Espionage hinges on suspense. Near misses, great escapes: the best shows have an element of delicious danger. It’s vital, then, to place the hero in peril, the more prevalent, the better. The first step is to isolate the hero from the world-crushing arm of the last superpower. Burn Notice starts out by throwing its hero out into the cold (well, technically Miami – spy slang doesn’t always make sense). Michael Weston’s only back up are his girlfriend, drinking buddy, and whatever spy trick he can pull out of his large colon. Alias was one of the best shows on TV for its first two seasons. Though the wheels didn’t come off until Melissa George showed up, the seeds were sown when they took Sydney out of the rogue agency SD-6 and handed her over to the CIA. She was no longer in mortal danger at all times and the show lost a certain amount of intrigue. Covert Affairs starts at the point where Alias started going south. Our heroine, Annie Walker, is a CIA agent. She has the resources of the entire US government at her back and though she doesn’t walk around with a SEAL team in her purse, she has cavalry.

A show with nothing but nail-biting terror can get a little exhausting. Shakespeare understood this, thus the comic relief in Macbeth was absolutely hilarious to illiterate peasants who liked to shit in the streets. Modern shows still do this, but they make the effort to at least speak English.

Speak English. This is America.

Because the heroes of a spy show are not usually doing this sort of thing for shits and giggles, part of the show takes place in an office. The standard rules of a workplace dramedy are in effect, with the side benefit that the guy who refuses to wash the coffee pot can kill you with a paperclip. Archer is the obvious example here, since it’s basically The Office if everyone was a sociopath. Chuck has Morgan and the rest of the Buy More team and Alias had Marshall. Covert Affairs has a whole office team with wacky problems. A blind lothario! Two agency heads that balance espionage and marriage! A talking Ken doll! Only they never bothered to figure out anything funny for these characters to say or do.

The baffling assumption that most spy shows seem to make is that we give a fuck about the character’s personal life. Thus, the characters are saddled with whiny friends (Alias), a carping family (Burn Notice) or both (Chuck). This has only ever worked on Chuck, mostly because the creators actually came up with distinctive personalities for Captain Awesome, Morgan, Jeff and Lester. Of course, once you commit to calling a character “Captain Awesome,” you’d better back that up with something. In spy shows, friends and family tend to devolve into one-dimensional scolds. Since they don’t know about the hero’s exciting dual life, they just assume that the hero is a flaky douche who gets his kicks by letting people down. Their plots tend to turn into: “Hey protagonist, want to hang out/see my gallery opening/take care of my kids/enter a pie eating contest?” “Why sure, buddy/bro/sis/Creepy Uncle Dave, I’d love to.” Then the hero inevitably misses the appointment because of the tiresome business of saving the fucking world and the other character then harangues the hero for this. This isn’t unique to spy shows, either. Any time a supporting character prevents the hero from doing the thing that makes the hero cool, the audience will hate this person (See Bennett, Rita). Covert Affairs has saddled Annie with a sister, a brother-in-law and either one or two nieces and/or nephews (I can’t keep an accurate count because kids all look alike). These characters add absolutely nothing to the show. They’re not even hot.

Spies need to do cool things. Annie Walker doesn’t really do anything particularly well. She doesn’t have Sydney Bristow’s unstoppable kung fu (or Jennifer Garner’s brickhouse body). She doesn’t have Michael Weston’s resourcefulness. She doesn’t have Chuck Bartowski’s Intersect-granted superpowers. She’s got skills, but nothing distinctive enough to stick.

Lastly, you have the most important aspect of any good spy show: the Third Guy. See, a spy show is only as good as the third major character. You have to have a hero, who should be attractive but also have a every(wo)man quality to make them relatable. You need a love interest that should be sexier than the hero (although Burn Notice fails in this regard, unless you have a thing for strips of beef jerky in designer shades). But it’s the Third Guy that’s vital. He’s the sidekick, though he would never call himself that. His character stands in contrast to the hero’s extraordinary qualities. He usually combines comic relief with ultimate badassery. There’s usually a question that the show never answers: who would win if the hero and the Third Guy ever threw down?

Chuck’s Third Guy is Colonel John Casey (Adam Baldwin), a stone-cold killer and unrepentant conservative. He exists to highlight Chuck’s essential goodness and the moments of connection between the two are among the more rewarding parts of the show. That and whenever Casey’s reverence for Big Boy model Ronald Reagan are on display.

In Burn Notice, you have the reason most of us checked out the show in the first place, Bruce Campbell’s Sam Axe. A Navy SEAL that has gone to seed, Sam generally exists to drink heavily, wear loud shirts and bang cougars. He evokes Jack Lord in Dr. No, the one Felix Leiter that was cooler than Bond.

The Third Guy in Alias was a bit different from the other two. Jack Bristow (Victor Garber) wasn’t comic relief. He served as the distant father that Sydney never knew because he was busy being ridiculously awesome. In the glory days of Alias, Jack Bristow was so great that he merited comparisons to that other Jack.

In Covert Affairs, the Third Guy is Sendhil Ramamurthy, a.k.a. Mohindrance, one of the parts of Heroes that even the hardcore fans can’t defend. Ramamurthy’s character is so unremarkable I can’t even remember his name. I’d imagine the Ken doll hotness balances this, but Mrs. Supermarket remains unmoved. She’s officially on Team Anyone-But-Mohindrance, which isn’t something you want in a Third Guy. It’s a scientific fact that you can’t go from Adam Baldwin, Victor Garber and Bruce “God” Campbell to Sendhil Ramamurthy. Seriously. You can look it up. There’s been science and everything.

Yep. He's a tool all right.

Because this vital role is so weak, Covert Affairs is forced to lean on Piper Perabo and Christopher Gorham. They’re both solid choices, but even Dave Foley could tell you that a table needs a bare minimum of three legs. There’s an easy solution, which is to promote Eion Bailey’s character to a regular, and give Mrs. Supermarket that beefy Paul Rudd-looking guy she’s always wanted. As sad as this is, whether or not they do this will determine if I watch the show next season.

About Justin

Author, mammal.
This entry was posted in Projected Pixels and Emulsion and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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