"Covert Affairs"

Piper Perabo stars in USA's "Covert Affairs." (Steve Wilkie, USA / July 13, 2010)

Character-welcoming USA is attempting to close its personal gender gap by adding a female-driven show to its increasing packaged and increasingly popular Boys of Summer Tour. Starring the very appealing Piper Perabo ( "Beverly Hills Chihuahua") as rookie CIA agent Annie Walker, "Covert Affairs" may not have the revenge factor of "Burn Notice" or the bromantic banter of "White Collar," but it's fast-paced, fun and every bit as charming. In the pilot, writers Matt Corman and Christopher Ord deftly blend shootouts and high-tech subterfuge with a romantic coming of age story to create a frothy tale of spy-jinx. Executive produced by Doug Liman ("The Bourne Identity" and "Mr. and Mrs. Smith"), "Covert Affairs" will appeal not only to the established (and ever-growing) USA audience but also those still jonesing for "Alias" or even "Buffy."

Full disclosure: It would be difficult for me not to rave about a pilot that included not only references to Jo Malone perfume and the Baltimore Colts but also a blind spy, here played by "Ugly Betty's" Christopher Gorham. Ever since seeing "Sneakers" at an impressionable age, I have been a sucker for blind operatives, if for no other reason than it allows the writers to address issues of smell and texture, sound and taste, which are too often ignored in the visual mediums. (That Gorham's Auggie is a computer specialist does pose a bit of a conundrum, but one that can be easily fixed with the right gadgetry or narrative shift.)

Oh, and Anne Dudek ("House," "Big Love") also stars, albeit in the regrettably limited role of Annie's sister, which is just the sprinkles on the icing — although someone somewhere needs to get serious about giving Dudek her own show.



We meet Annie as she's taking her polygraph before entering the agency, the strangely intimate (and possibly actionable) questions enabling us to see her "tragic" back story — she met a man on a faraway beach, fell in love, exchanged shell bracelets and three weeks later he left only a note behind saying, "The truth is complicated." So she took her broken heart, history of world travel and amazing talent for languages back to Washington, where she joined the CIA.

Before you can say "but why not law school" in three languages, Annie is yanked into the thick of things, called into active duty even though she hasn't finished her training because, well, because she's an attractive woman who speaks Russian. No doubt the CIA is brimming with attractive women who speak Russian, but if you're going to spend your time picking plot holes, you're going to miss all the fun. Like watching Auggie walk Annie through her early days with a Zen-like patience that one suspects will turn to lerve, or Peter Gallagher and Kari Matchett out-seething each other as married and competing division heads or Annie dodging bullets when her first job goes horribly awry.

Neither as bumbling as Chuck nor as predictably lethal as Bourne, Annie is a convincing novice, with just enough special training (not to mention all those languages!) to keep her alive but not so many to make her Angelina Jolie scary. At its heart, "Covert Affairs" is about Every Woman Starting a New Job. Because of course it isn't just the bullets and the high-speed car chases that have Annie so frazzled, it's the internal politics, the possibly double-agent new colleagues and Annie's inability to forget That Guy. Action-thriller lite is a newish sub-genre and a high-wire act to maintain, especially when your hero's wearing Christian Louboutins. (Someday all this shoe nonsense will end but this, alas is not that day.) Here's hoping "Covert Affairs" is up to the task.

mary.mcnamara@latimes.com