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'Covert Affairs' Review: Thoughts On An Enjoyable Spy Romance

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covert affairs

Sometimes I wonder if I'm watching "Covert Affairs" correctly.

The USA drama, which returns for its fourth season Tuesday, is all about spy skulduggery, so I should be watching it for the chase scenes, the intrigue and the backstabbing, right?

I like all of those things just fine, but "Covert Affairs" tends to show its most winning qualities in its quieter moments.

As fans know, at the end of the third season, operative Annie Walker (Piper Perabo) and Auggie Anderson (Christopher Gorham) finally kissed. And that moment wasn't just about the kiss (delightful though it was), it was about the culmination of a friendship and a deep intimacy that had been building between the two since the show began.

I had time in recent weeks to watch all of "Covert's" third season, and one of the things I enjoyed about it is that the show's writers didn't toy with the viewers too long. It wasn't really a case of "Will they or won't they?" between Auggie and Annie, it was more a slow burn that indicated "They will, when the time is right."

I'll leave it to longtime fans to debate whether four seasons was too long to wait, but without giving away too much about Tuesday's episode, those who've been 'shipping Auggie-Annie will probably be happy with what they see.

One reason I'm glad the two hooked up when they did: It gave the show some time to evolve away from what it was in its early days. "Covert's" evolution has been measured but unmistakeable, and as much as I adore Anne Dudek's work and hope she appears soon in another show, I'm very glad that Annie's sister and her family were shipped off to a farm in the country where they can run free (or something to that effect). The early attempts to give Annie domestic entanglements did nothing but weigh the show down, and the time and energy the show used to spend on those kinds of predictable personal problems have been given over to something much cooler: Globe-trotting adventures.

I don't know what the budget is for "Covert Affairs," which shoots in Toronto, but I'd imagine it's a lot less than what "Alias" had to work with back in the day. Still, the show manages to hop all over the globe: It has filmed episodes in Puerto Rico, Amsterdam, Paris, Barcelona, Morocco and Budapest, and Tuesday's season premiere is largely set in Medellin, Colombia. There have been a lot of espionage-driven dramas and comedies on the air in recent years, and one reason I didn't initially warm to "Covert" was that it didn't appear to do anything all that distinctive or unique. However in recent seasons, the show's smart and energetic use of locations is one way it's set itself apart.

"Covert" has also had some terrific guest stars: Oded Fehr has been wonderfully warm and yet believably dangerous in a recurring role as Israeli spy Eyal Levin, and Gregory Itzin, who was incredible as a corrupt president on "24," is currently playing the hell out of a similarly slimy "Covert" role, as mysterious and well-connected fixer Henry Wilcox. Hill Harper guests in the season premiere and makes a strong impression, as well (you can see for yourself in this exclusive clip).

Given that "Covert" is a USA show, it should go without saying that the entire cast, including Peter Gallagher and Kari Matchett as married supervisors, is very solid. Having said that, I sometimes wish Annie and Auggie's roster of spy colleagues was a little more expansive. After all, like most good spy shows, "Covert" is really about the difficulty of maintaining personal relationships when one's stock in trade is secrets, and the more relationships the central characters have, the more chances "Covert" has to explore (in its own brisk yet effective way) ideas about loneliness, connection and sacrifice.

As I've said, what I've tended to like most about the show are the intimate and emotional moments, but credit where it's due: The easy chemistry between Perabo and Gorham is often at the center of those scenes. The bond between their characters has come to define the show, and it'd be much less fun (and resonant) without them. (Another thing I like a lot: Auggie's blindness isn't ignored, but it's also not the character's defining trait, or an excuse to portray him as a saint.)

Writing about television can be like trying to step between a series of moving trains; once I stopped watching "Covert Affairs," I wasn't sure I'd get a chance to hop on board again. I can't say I'm 100 percent sure I'll see every future episode, but I'm glad I checked out where it's been and where it's going. This amiable, entertaining show isn't trying to change the world or strain the boundaries of scripted television, and that's just fine.

There's something to be said for figuring out what you're good at and sticking to it.

"Covert Affairs" airs 9 p.m. Tuesdays on USA, where "Suits" also returns 10 p.m. Tuesday.