'White Collar's' return is a sprightly, enjoyable affair -- stylishly shot, well acted and deftly threaded with moral ambiguity -- whereas the spy drama 'Covert Affairs' is surprisingly leaden.
I could go on about what 'White Collar' is doing right these days -- and I will in a bit -- but first, after a year of trying to crack this show's code, I've finally figured out what 'Covert Affairs' is: It's the spy show by and for people who've never seen 'Alias.'
Now, I can't say for sure whether or not the creators of 'Covert Affairs' have indeed seen the Jennifer Garner-J.J. Abrams espionage drama, but if they have, my goodness, they've gone out of their way to ignore everything that show ever did right. I'm not saying that spy shows, especially female-led ones, need to have a dense mythologies and dizzying story turns. I do think they need to supply relationships and motivations that the audience can buy into, but those things are in short supply on 'Covert Affairs.'
Piper Perabo certainly doesn't have the quality of vulnerability that Jennifer Garner brought to the role of 'Alias' agent Sydney Bristow, and though 'Covert Affairs' tries to ground Perabo's character, Annie, with a few central relationships, they are rote and uninvolving. Everything about 'Covert Affairs' feels bland and generic: Annie herself (Perabo is efficient but charisma-free), her missions (this week's assignment is completely predictable), her relationship with her sister (the wonderful Anne Dudek, wasted in a marginal role), and especially her relationship with her boyfriend, another CIA operative.
That relationship should be the center that holds this show together; it should be the wellspring for dozens of potentially emotionally charged situations, but I found my mind wandering in any scene involving Annie and her boyfriend, Ben. That relationship is related to the ongoing arcs that the show occasionally dips into, but the romance couldn't be any less compelling.
There are actors I like a lot on this show, notably Christopher Gorham as Annie's colleague Auggie and Peter Gallagher as one of her CIA bosses, but there's no beating heart at the center of 'Covert Affairs.' The stories, whether they are weekly or ongoing, are simply dull (and at this stage, I can't quite even understand the point of Sendhil Ramamurthy's character on the show).
We have a lot of spy shows to choose from these days, and if I'm going to follow an espionage drama, it's going to be something like 'Burn Notice' or 'Chuck,' where the people and their relationships matter as much or more than the operations.
'White Collar' understands that even a lightly formulaic drama needs a solid relationship foundation, and the central connection on this show is still interesting, three seasons in. Former (and possibly current) con man and forger Neal Caffrey (Matthew Bomer) and FBI agent Peter Burke (Tim DeKay) have the kind of prickly friendship that can keep a show moving forward almost indefinitely, and it's heartening to see that the show's writers haven't backed away from exploring the problems that can arise when an FBI agent and a career criminal work together.
There's an actual conflict with real stakes when the season begins: Peter suspects Neal and his buddy Mozzie (Willie Garson) of being involved in an art heist, and even though Peter has to call on Neal's help in another case, the suspicions and evasions of both men give the proceedings some grit (and the cases end up elegantly connected as well). USA shows often have a moral aspect to them -- the heroes are usually helping worthy little guys or people who are on some level worth saving -- but there are many shades of grey to the world that Neal and his associates live in, and Peter occasionally has to make his peace with that, which he does only grudgingly.
The dogged Peter wants to figure out once and for all whether Neal's still doing things he shouldn't be doing in his spare time, and it's that tension between Peter's desire to be right and Neal's ingrained need for evasion that gives the series an extra edge.
Some of 'White Collar's' week-to-week episodes probably won't be quite as strong as the season premiere and some of the characters feel underdeveloped, but that's not the end of the world. This is one of the best-directed shows on cable: It gracefully captures its New York setting and, in the season premiere at least, the pace rarely flags.
And charisma isn't really an issue on this show. The complicated, often sarcastic camaraderie between Peter and Neal is quietly enjoyable, and the oddball chemistry between Mozzie and Neal is almost as winning as Bomer's hypnotic blue eyes.
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