USA’s sexy spy drama Covert Affairs comes off a blockbuster year to begin its sophomore season. Does CIA operative Annie Walker still have what it takes to get the job done?

Covert Affairs‘ season 2 premiere episode, “Begin the Begin”, starts with a slow montage of events after last year’s finale in Sri Lanka.  The show wastes no time ramping up the action, with Annie (Piper Parabo) and injured romantic interest Ben Mercer (Eion Bailey) running from mysterious gunmen who’ve infiltrated the U.S. Naval Hospital in Guam. The two head back to Washington D.C., where Ben recovers and Annie returns to her double life at the CIA.

The first case assigned to Annie upon her return is protecting an Estonian tennis star who’s snitching on an Eastern European crime boss. As Annie struggles with a growing sense of paranoia, she must contend with her superior Joan Campbell (Kari Matchett) and blind intelligence wunderkind Auggie Anderson (Christopher Gorham). Other returning actors include HeroesSendhil Ramamurthy and Peter Gallagher.

Covert Affairs lives and dies on Perabo’s performance as a competent, yet vulnerable, agent – not unlike an armed and dangerous version of Ally McBeal. While Annie has gained some confidence from her freshman year of globe-trotting adventures, her struggle with crippling paranoia keeps her from becoming an unrelatable superwoman. Her trademarked kicked-puppy look returns more than once, allowing for some audience sympathy, if not a real feeling of danger.

Of course, she’s still a ton of fun to watch. Seeing Annie protect the country from threats foreign and domestic in $700 Christian Louboutin pumps has yet to get old, and neither has seeing Auggie play the wise blind mentor. His flirty and irreverent banter is at least as fun as his authoritative spy-guy advice, and Gorham’s compassionate performance makes you believe that he really cares for Annie, in a big brother sort of way. Her growing paranoia contrasts well with her unfailing dedication, both of which are helped by Auggie.

The humor on display last year is somewhat lacking in the opening episode, but that’s forgivable with so much ground to cover. There’s still plenty of one-liners sent flying – mostly from Auggie – who keeps the rest of the cast on their toes with some entertaining self-deprecation. Some genuinely impressive dialogue from Campbell doesn’t hurt, either.

The CIA brass needs to contend with lawsuits and other minutia that instantly brings the drama and action to a screeching halt. These segments would be more bearable if they only lasted a few short minutes, but no, they crop up often enough to keep the audience engaged in a plot that’s hard to care about when international criminals are loose in DC. Equally distracting are Annie’s segments with sister Danielle (Anne Dudek) and her kids – again, these bits help to humanize the character, but really put the brakes on the high-tension atmosphere.

Covert Affairs seems to be going in a more serious direction this year. Annie’s no longer wet behind the ears and takes the initiative more often than not. This allows for some impressive set pieces, including the hospital escape, a high-profile tennis match and a car chase. These aren’t up to AAA action movie standards of course, but they’re at or above the level of the climaxes in Burn Notice, and Covert Affairs manages to introduce and resolve these situations without the former’s ever-present cheesiness.

That isn’t to say that these sequences are perfect. Persnickety viewers will notice a few continuity and editing errors – an MP has to shoot through a fleeing Annie and Mercer in order to take down a bad guy, and the CIA operatives seem to leave a lot of criminals blowing in the wind. But there are nit-picks; those entertained by last year’s weekly escapades will still be enthralled.

Covert Affairs isn’t for everyone, but it’s a fun show that doesn’t ask too much of its audience (or actors, for that matter). For some entertaining popcorn fodder that’s a step above the likes of CSI in both action and character development, it’s hard to beat.

Covert Affairs airs Tuesday nights at 10PM on USA.

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