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Covert Affairs: When Bad Television is Good Television

Summer fare rarely pushes deeper than the immediate surface. With Perabo proving the goods however, Covert Affairs has been the perfect antidote to television doldrums.

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I can’t remember the last time I saw Piper Perabo, but I’m sure it was around the time of Coyote Ugly. If you remember that film, it was where she played a small town girl who came into the big city chasing dreams only to end up dancing atop a bar. It was a terrible film. That was probably the last time I saw her anywhere (okay, that’s a lie, I saw her in Cheaper By the Dozen but I’d like to pretend that never happened either), until this past summer where she’s been heating up the USA Network’s summer schedule with the Doug Liman produced Covert Affairs.

The series is, for all intents and purposes, a lighter less-heady version of previously popular spy drama Alias. Perabo plays Annie Walker, a fresh out of school recruit whose immense language skills has earned her a spot at Langley. Through the series, she trots around the globe doing spy things- exchanging information, extracting people, kicking people, and generally getting out of sticky spy situations. Her immediate team includes Auggie Anderson (a blind operative helping Walker from the desk, played by Christopher Gorham), Jai Wilcox (a fishy CIA officer who appears to have more than one secret) and the husband and wife director team played by Peter Gallagher and Kari Matchett.

It is the pairing of Matchett and Gallagher as CIA directors (with Gallagher’s character being Matchett’s superior) that proves to be the series’ unique character relationship. While Walker’s cover means she often lies to her sister and family, it is the strain between Gallagher and Matchett’s respective characters that proves to be the most interesting. How does a married couple possibly live and cope as two high-ranking CIA operatives? How do you possibly take that friction and disagreement home to bed? Not a bad set up for summer fare.

The show’s lighthearted veneer is both an asset and a hindrance. It’s relatively easy going and the missions and plotlines do their best not to complicate any of the characters. A former CIA agent troubles Walker, a previous lover (played by Eion Bailey), but this story line tends to falter more than it shines as it fails to do anything other than give some back story to why Walker will at times seem troubled (she at least, cries much less than Sydney Bristow did). The aesthetics and cinematography borrows more from the CSI school of television than it does The Wire, with pretty people abound and a glossy shine cast over the locales. Viewers shouldn’t expect season-long story arches and multi-layered complexities that lingers long after the show is done either. Through the season we’ve seen her travel to South America, Europe and across North America to diffuse situations like protecting a boy-genius, leaks in the Senate, suspicious art and an escaping Iranian defector who as it turns out, just wants to get back with his childhood girlfriend. Not exactly stopping a nuclear holocaust.

Yet you can’t help but enjoy the 40+ minutes it’s on every week. For one, Perabo is absolutely fantastic in it. She was born to play a lovable, but slightly troubled, beautiful spy whose world of espionage is both engaging and interesting, but only slightly dangerous. Her command of foreign dialects is believable and her earnest character makes her one of the best on television at the moment.

Summer fare rarely pushes deeper than the immediate surface. With Perabo proving the goods however, Covert Affairs has been the perfect antidote to television doldrums and a show to watch as it traverses past the singular season mark. If anything, Covert Affairs just wants to have a good time and to be well liked, both accomplished with stylistic aplomb.

Television

Why Fleabag was the most important show of 2019

Fleabag will be that show that influences other shows and movies for decades to come

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fleabag

How is it that even among the award show sweeps, iconic jumpsuit copycats, and seemingly universal acclaim, Fleabag still seems underrated? Maybe it’s because, on paper, little about Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s play-turned-Amazon-series should have worked all that well for mass acclaim — particularly for American audiences. Half of the characters in the show are nameless. There is constant breaking of the fourth wall. And, perhaps most surprising to its success in the U.S., the show comprised only two seasons of just six half-hour episodes apiece — released an agonizing three years apart. (We typically like our TV shows abundant and delivered fast, the cinematic equivalent of a cheap dinner at a strip mall buffet.)

But paper can’t capture the brilliance of Waller-Bridge’s tale of a woman drowning her guilt and trauma in sarcasm and casual sex (and occasionally guinea pigs). Fleabag is packed with raw humanity, top-notch writing, and impeccable comedic timing. 

The ingenious writing and acting of Fleabag is matched only by the show’s ensemble cast. Brett Gelman is delightfully disgusting as swarthy, pitiful brother-in-law Martin. As Fleabag’s season two love interest, the Hot Priest, Andrew Scott exudes turmoil so heavy you can feel it through the screen, as he struggles to navigate sexual desire with spirituality. Sian Clifford beautifully embodies Fleabag’s high-powered sister Claire, whose Type-A rigidity is as palpable as her deep unhappiness. 

And who can forget the incomparable Olivia Colman? She is hysterical as Godmother, a self-important artist whose fixation on alienating Fleabag is only as cringeworthy as her pride on her wedding day in showing off the diverse identities of her “friends.” (“This is my verrrry interesting friend Daniel, who’s deaf. I picked him up at a student gallery opening. Utterly fascinating. Can’t hear a thing.”) 

But it so much more than outstanding casting and indulgent black humor that makes Fleabag the most important show of 2019.

Fleabag will be that show that influences other shows and movies for decades to come. Fleabag has proven that you can teach an old cinematic device a brand-new trick. The show has taught us that these techniques aren’t doomed to become a shtick or a crutch. And it has taught us how compelling it can be when stories of women’s sexuality and humanity are explored authentically (see: why fewer men should be writing these stories). 

But more than anything, Fleabag has raised the bar. 

We have much to thank Phoebe Waller-Bridge for — Fleabag is as deliriously funny as it is heartwrenching. But we should also thank her because, in the vein of Twin Peaks, her show will blaze trails for other artists. Just like David Lynch’s groundbreaking soap-opera-tinged supernatural series paved the way for shows like Northern Exposure and True Detective, screenwriters in the coming years will owe an equal creative debt to Fleabag

So we may clamor and beg for seasons three and four — which we will never and should never get — but we should appreciate Fleabag for exactly what it is: near-perfect television and inspiration for the amazing shows that we haven’t even seen yet.

Fleabag airs in the UK on the BBC and internationally on Amazon Prime.

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Television

Homelander is humanity’s most accurate superhero

Amazon’s hard-hitting, irreverent take on superheroes is a painfully accurate takedown of humanity

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If you haven’t yet seen Amazon Studios’ hard-hitting, irreverent take on superheroes, proceed at your own risk. But if you haven’t seen The Boys yet, why not? It’s not-so-quietly the best television show of 2019 and its painfully accurate depiction of what superheroes would really be like in our world is gloriously funny and poignant. You best get on it.

With that said, The Boys IS 2019’s best television show, and while it may not be the most easily digestible show (if you prefer your superhero television to be Supergirl type corny, you’re probably in for a bit of a shock), those who venture through its visceral 8-episode first season will no doubt be left in awe. Based on the 2006 graphic novel of the same name, The Boys tells the story of a group of nogoodniks led by Karl Urban’s brute Billy Butcher, who takes the seemingly hapless Hughie (played by Jack Quaid) on a vigilante mission to avenge the death of his girlfriend. Along the way “The Boys” set out to expose the fake news facade of the superheroes in the series’ world. These so-called heroes, backed by mega-corporation Vought International, are Earth’s premier team of superheroes. On the surface, they act like the Marvel Avengers / DC Justice League team, but in reality, are just a colossal mess of frail egos and giant assholes whose appearances are kept up to keep the money-making wheels spinning.

The story unfolds in glorious violence, capped by slow-mo gory deaths, shattered limbs, and enough sex and psychotherapy to make old “Skinemax” television blush. But what’s most telling about the series is the accurate characterisation of what it means to be a hero in the real world. “The Seven” (Vought’s Avengers) are led by the very Captain America/Superman-esque Homelander; a stoic, blond, barrel-chested hero for America that waves and kisses babies on camera, but away from it, is a fragile, colossal asshole egomaniac with severe Freudian issues. The latter become one of the focal points of the series’ narrative arc and are a small but telling dimension of the layers you find within this show. He’s surrounded by likeminded assholes; sexual deviant The Deep (if one of the characters from Gossip Girl ended up becoming Aquaman), sexual deviant Translucent (if Invisible Man was a chronic sex-pest) and murdering drug-addict A-Train (if The Flash was… well, a murdering drug addict). The only one who presents with any form of likeability are Queen Maeve and newcomer Starlight. The latter, integral to the story, is a good girl Christian superhero who discovers like most of us, The Seven aren’t who they make out to be.

Over the eight episodes of the first season, we come to the sad and painful realization that if superheroes were to exist in our reality, that this would be it. Intentionally or not, this commentary is one of the most compelling parts of this series. It’s beautifully cynical, but at the same, cuts right to the heart of the truth of our society. The Marvel Universe has spoiled us with dreams of heroic saviors, but in reality, we would get and deserve much less.

Superheroes in the Marvel and DC Universes are often too good to be true; cavorting around like false prophets. In times when humanity turns against them (Batman vs. Superman, Captain America: Civil War, Spider-Man: Far From Home), they react with some level of empathy for the reactions of the general public. Superman exiles himself in Batman vs Superman while The Avengers attempt to self-police in Civil War; all are actions of self-sacrificing their worth for the greater good. Their hope is that public opinion will turn once people realize the truth. Homelander is nothing like that, and often in The Boys, his good public persona will reveal his true self the moment he faces situations that harm his likeness, value, and/or monetary worth. It’s how most people would react no matter how much they tell you they wouldn’t. In all of Homelander’s inhuman superpowers, his most telling characteristic are his most human ones; selfish, egotistical, greedy, self-absorbed. They are not positive qualities, but they are very real.

You may be thinking that this is an overly cynical view on humanity, but the old adage of the truth hurting is ever present through the series. The Boys‘ socio-political commentary isn’t even about specific politics or people- even though you can equate it to them. It’s broader, more sweeping in its assessment that no matter your political views, no matter your race or creed, you are nowhere near as heroic or “good” as you think you are. “The Boys” themselves, of course, are a band of anti-hero criminals and outcasts that help confirm that even the people “doing good” aren’t all that good themselves. As the series points out, we are all just different sides of the same coin.

It’s all just a helpful reminder that in a world filled with liars, charlatans, hacks, and grifters, there are no real heroes and those looking to become one just end up getting burned. The Boys is a compelling look into the mirror of society; refreshing, invigorating, and painfully true. It is the truth we are all afraid to face wrapped in relatable costumes and transient power. I suppose we could keep telling ourselves that we’re nothing like the people and “heroes” in The Boys, but then we’d just be lying to ourselves. It’s in part, what makes Homelander humanity’s most accurate superhero. If that’s not enough for you, then watch it for Karl Urban calling everyone a “c*nt” for eight episodes.

The Boys is streaming now on Amazon Prime.

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