Somehow, USA keeps taking stale-sounding concepts and manages to infuse them with surprising energy and verve. So it is with “Covert Affairs,” casting Piper Perabo as a fledgling CIA agent — plucked from the academy in training, a la “Silence of the Lambs’?” Clarice Starling — thrust into a web of confounding internal politics, espionage and wrong-way chases. There’s nothing remotely new here, yet the extended pilot (which can claim a production affiliation with the “Bourne” franchise) moves so efficiently — while dangling a key serialized thread — that “Affairs” could blossom into a longterm relationship.
A pretty actress with a made-for-comicbooks name, Perabo is introduced in a tropical setting where her Annie Walker is involved in a whirlwind romance, only to have her b.f. disappear, leaving the cryptic note, “The truth is complicated.” (“X-Files” fans have always been told it was “out there,” but never mind.)
Fluent in seven languages, she signs up with the CIA, but is abruptly plucked from her trainee class, ostensibly to capitalize on her linguistic skills. After some brief orientation by a blind tech whiz (Christopher Gorham) and her tough, disapproving boss (Kari Matchett), Annie is dispatched to retrieve intel from a Russian assassin, mostly because she A) speaks Russian and B) can pass for a high-priced call girl. That’s what you call a “win-win.”
The ensuing hijinks — including an awkward dinner orchestrated by Annie’s sister (Anne Dudek), who knows nothing about her secret life — don’t really matter much in the details. But as directed by Tim Matheson (who has worked on USA’s “Burn Notice”) from a script by Matt Corman and Chris Ord, the pilot rumbles forward on crisp action and light-hearted humor, while hinting at higher stakes that offer room for narrative growth.
While easily dismissed as another “Alias” (like Jennifer Garner, Perabo can do wonderful things to a simple skirt and heels), the show also makes clever use of Walker’s newbie status. By that measure, she’s eager to exhibit initiative but not immune from fear or always fully capable of handling the threats she rushes to face.
Having played a spy previously in “Jake 2.0,” Gorham also makes for a nice sidekick, with some soapy doings (perhaps the pilot’s weakest element) involving Matchett and the Domestic Protection Division’s director, played by Peter Gallagher.
Like any good spy mission, ultimately, a TV series comes down to the execution. And based strictly on this first assignment, USA — which will launch the show behind the similarly themed “White Collar” — probably won’t have to worry about “Affairs” remaining covert for long.