Mixed Signals: USA Network Original Series

Posted on November 9, 2011


My wife and I started watching USA original series in 2002 with Monk. They’ve had hits and misses. I’ve already talked about Psych (which we’re really enjoying this season, btw). This week I’d like to talk about two others – Burn Notice and Covert Affairs.

What We Watch

Originally, the marketing for Burn Notice didn’t do much for me. We were fans of Jeffrey Donovan from the American adaptation of Touching Evil, but…really? A spy show on TV? An action show on USA? I couldn’t figure out how they could find the budget for chase scenes, gun fights, or explosions. Then I read a review that compared it to The Prisoner. I think The Prisoner was a highwater mark for television. It intrigued me that Michael Westen was a spy stuck in Miami, just as Number Six was stuck in The Village. Plus, you know, how do you pass up a chance to watch the great Bruce Campbell on TV every week?

By the time Covert Affairs came along three years later, we believed in the USA Network. Of course they could pull off a completely different espionage show. Piper Perabo seemed perfect for the part, plus we loved Christopher Gorham in Jake 2.0. Adding Kari Matchett, Anne Dudek, Sendhil Ramamurthy, and Peter Gallagher to the mix just made the show more attractive to us – and it hasn’t disappointed.

The Verdicts

We really liked the relationship balance between Michael Westen, his mother (Madeline, played by Sharon Gless), his on-again/off-again girlfriend (Fiona, played by the amazing Gabrielle Anwar), and his old SEAL buddy (Sam Axe, played by the aforementioned Bruce Campbell). Then, in Season 4, they added another character – Jesse Porter (Coby Bell). I get it – another member of the team meant that the writers could put together intertwining storylines where Michael and Sam went down one path, and Jesse and Fiona went down another (or some other combination). That’s great, and Coby Bell is a fine actor. The problems are that his addition upsets the balance we liked, and that Jesse is something of an enigma. Sam is a borderline alcholic who always looks for the easy way out. Fiona is a former terrorist whose default solution is explosives and violence. Michael is the cool professional¬† directing their activities for his own purpose. Jesse doesn’t have a focus yet, and it puts the whole series on the bubble for us.

Covert Affairs is batting .1000. Annie Walker (Piper Perabo) was recruited into the CIA early because of her special skills with languages. Her handler is a former US military special operator named Auggie (Christopher Gorham) blinded in the line of duty. Her manager, Joan Campbell (Kari Matchett), is the director’s wife. Her relationship with Arthur Campbell (Peter Gallagher) is on the rocks, stressed by personal and professional conflicts. Meanwhile, the privileged son of a former director, Jai Wilcox (Sendhil Ramamurthy), is climbing the supervisory ladder ruthlessly and Annie’s sister, Danielle (Anne Dudek), is going through a trial separation from her husband. At the end of season 1, Danielle found out that Annie was lying to her about her job, and threw Annie out of the house. Really, the beautiful women and spy action just make it okay for guys to watch the relationship drama.


In 2007, I wouldn’t have believed that we would watch two spy shows (on the same network, no less) at the same time. By 2010, I wasn’t sure that Burn Notice would keep our attention. Now, as season six starts, they’ve added a slimy villain who’s threatening Fiona. Overcoming Michael’s burn notice seemed achievable, but time-consuming. Now this villain has Michael in a box, and there’s no obvious way out. I kinda want to see what happens – and I sure hope that Jesse comes more into focus.

Covert Affairs hasn’t given us a focus for the story this season, but that’s okay. The show is more episodic in nature anyway, with the character stories providing structure for the whole season. We’re shippers, as I’ve said before, so that’s all we need. If we get more, then hooray!


So there you have it: Two very different spy shows, both worth watching for completely different reasons. We’d have three, but Chaos got cancelled.

Posted in: television