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USA Network’s Covert Affairs gets the style and the facts of espionage right

Covert Affairs, USA’s new show about a young CIA agent, has Piper Perabo in Christian Louboutin shoes and a crappy red Volkswagen, Christopher Gorham as a blind lothario named Augie, and Peter Gallagher with the charm turned all the way up. In other words, it’s great, loose summer fun. But it’s also one of the smarter shows about the federal bureaucracy I’ve ever seen, wrapped up in a candy-colored package and riddled with bullets.

The show follows Annie Walker, gifted in languages and defensive driving but dumb enough in matters of the heart to consider cowrie bracelets a lasting commitment. She joins the CIA after bumming around in exotic locations fails to heal her broken heart. Given her Russian fluency, she’s pulled out of training early to play a hooker and retrieve intelligence from a defector. He gets shot, and she gets into a tussle with the FBI.

The show’s been called the second coming of Alias. But while its hyper-talented gamine in distress is standard TV fodder, the details of work in the Agency have some resemblance to reality. As Tom Shoop, my old boss, points out at FedBlog, it might seem unrealistic that Annie would get yanked onto the front lines, but the intelligence community is relying on a younger, less experienced workforce due to ramped-up hiring in the post-9/11 era, something the show addresses explicitly. Intentional or not, Augie’s blindness is a nice nod to the efforts the National Security Agency has made to recruit and retain talented disabled employees.

A lot of the details are right, too. Gallagher plays Arthur, the director of the National Clandestine Service. His wife heads another directorate and is Annie’s first boss, sending her off to a meeting with the advice that “the hookers in DC are pretty conservative. What you’re wearing now is fine.” Getting details and tone notes like that right compensate for mistakes such as subbing in what looks like the New York City subway for the Washington Metro and placing Crystal City’s underground walkways downtown.

The show’s plotlines rely heavily on bureaucratic rivalries. A first meeting between Annie’s boss and Arthur initially sounds like a fight for resources between division chiefs, but it turns out to be marriage counseling that’s going extremely badly. So badly, in fact, that she’s using agency resources to spy on her husband’s conversation with a sexy staffer from a congressional-oversight committee. On her first mission out, Annie lies to an FBI agent who later finds out who she is, and he curses her out for setting their agencies against each other rather than bringing them together.

The first major story arc is a direct reference to a quiet war between government and the press. Someone in Gallagher’s division is leaking information to a Washington paper—specifically to an attractive intelligence reporter with a commitment to protecting her sources (perhaps someone like Wall Street Journal reporter Siobhan Gorman). Gallagher is desperate to stop them—so eager, in fact, that he offers to become a source. Given the Obama administration’s obsession with leaks—evident in the indictment of one of Gorman’s sources and attorney general Eric Holder-approved subpoena of New York Times intelligence reporter James Risen—it would’ve been hard for the show to find a more timely, and targeted, issue to explore.

It’s just a first episode. But if Covert Affairs continues to balance its blend of government smarts and good looks, it could be, like Annie, a standout in its class.

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