Public Service Announcement 36 of 2013: Bates Motel, Covert Affairs, Peaky Blinders

We’ll be getting busy again shortly, as UK autumn TV schedules align themselves more and more closely with the American ones. This is, of course, a good thing.

But it means that a quick decision will need to be made about Bates Motel, a ten-episode present-day prequel to the events of Psycho, which would have gained attention simply for being What Carlton Cuse Did After Lost. (Cuse exec produces.)  It’s supposed to be pretty good, though, and on the back of decent ratings it’s been renewed for a second season. I haven’t seen a frame of it, but I’m willing to bet that it might well be worth watching for the terrific Vera Farmiga in an Emmy-nominated role as Norman Bates’s mother, demonstrating yet again that one of the benefits of the present Golden Age of TV is that it provides proper roles for women over the age of 35. Freddie Highmore is Norman, and our old friends Nestor Carbonell and Jere Burns guest star, with Vaughn off of Alias lined up for season 2. You know, this might be OK (Thursday 12 September, 9pm, Universal).

The night before, Covert Affairs returns for its fourth season. After two seasons of Alias-lite amiable fluff, the show went up a level in its third year, particularly in the arc which had Richard Coyle as the mysterious Simon Fischer. We ended season 3 with the much-awaited Annie/Auggie hookup, although sometimes with long-term ships we need to be careful what we wish for. Hill Harper from CSI: NY is on board this time round, and there was more than enough in season 3 to suggest that the writers have a grasp of how to develop a show year-on-year. I’m an unashamed fan of Covert Affairs, and I’ll be watching (Wednesday 11 September, 9pm, Really).

Over on the British side of things, we should probably have mentioned The Guilty before now (Thursdays, ITV), the first episode of which has already aired: a not-called-Broadchurch UK drama about a murdered child and a family with secrets, starring one of our better female actors (Tamsin Greig this time). I’m sure it’s great, but I’ll probably never know.

Moving away from the dead children and fractured communities for a moment, Peaky Blinders at least sounds a bit more original: a post-First World War drama about Birmingham gangsters, with Cillian Murphy as a gang leader and Sam Neill as a cop. Advance word is good, but advance word tends to be optimistic for British drama. (And it has a silly name.) It’s on at the same time as Scandal, Bates Motel, and The Guilty, so even with a DVR involved it might be time to hunt around the schedules for repeats and +1s if you’re following them all (Thursday 12 September, 9pm, BBC2).

And from roughly the same period in history, The Wipers Times is a one-off drama about a newspaper printed by soldiers in the Ypres trenches in 1916. Co-written by Private Eye’s Ian Hislop and his usual collaborator Nick Newman, it has a fascinating story to tell and a good cast (Ben Chaplin, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Michael Palin) to tell it (Wednesday 11 September, 9pm, BBC2).

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Annie’s in Amsterdam, and she needs to deliver to Khalid a list of CIA assets working for his father’s company, or Eyal’s a dead man. She suffers an apparently motiveless beating from two guys whose asses she could normally kick, which puzzled me, but there’s a reason: she needs to gain access to the American consulate’s medical wing to get hold of the information Khalid needs. Anyway, it looks as if Annie’s prepared to go through with it, but fortunately for the CIA assets Auggie’s in town with a plan B.

Plan B ends up with Annie, Auggie, and Eyal on the slowest getaway vehicle I’ve ever seen: a barge cruising on the canals of Amsterdam at a pace I’d hesitate to even call leisurely, but since the purpose was very plainly to allow the viewer to enjoy the scenery, and since Amsterdam is one of my very favourite places, fair enough. There’s a shady backroom deal being done to let Khalid away, but Annie’s determined it’s not going to be that easy for him. Auggie is plainly worried about the risks Annie’s taking, which foreshadows the final scene.

Anyway, back in America Henry Wilcox hands Annie a Top Secret File, which has something about Joan and Arthur in it, but since we don’t find out any more about it the writers have a few months to come up with something. And with the supporting act out of the way, it’s finally Augnie time! SQUEE!

A great end to what has been the best season of Covert Affairs by a considerable margin; in particular, the Simon Fischer/Lena Smith arc in the first ten episodes lifted the show onto a new level. Season 4 is expected in summer 2013 in America.

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A globe-trotting episode this one, starting in faux-Luxembourg, ending in real Amsterdam, and with detours to Zurich, America, and Iraq in the middle. The Iraq part came across as something the producers felt obliged to do, like that time ER went to Sudan: worthwhile and appropriate, even moving, in itself, but not entirely on all fours with the rest of the show. Anyway, Auggie returns to Iraq with Operation Proper Exit, a real-life programme which takes soldiers back to where they were wounded to give them a better sense of closure. (This episode was shown in America around the same time as Veterans’ Day.) He’s mentoring a young soldier whose marriage is in trouble; Auggie himself has some shit to work through as well, of course, and presumably we’re now just that little bit closer to some Augnie frolics.

There’s plenty of action in the main part of the show, though. With Auggie having stuck his out-of-office email message on, Annie’s in bother: she falls for a Khalid trap in Luxembourg, needs extracted, and Auggie’s USELESS deputy needs 30 minutes to set it up, so who you gonna call? Eyal, obv. He gets her out and they meet in Zurich, but get found again by Khalid’s men, whereupon Eyal allows himself to be captured thus letting Annie go free. Before he’s taken, though, he implants a tracker in himself, which means that Annie can follow him. And so to Amsterdam for next week’s finale.

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I was becoming just a little uncomfortable with the Annie/Eyal arc last week, as the direction of travel seemed to be that Annie finds Eyal attractive and therefore, being a girl, allows him to pull the wool over her eyes. That possibility can’t yet be ruled out, but on the evidence of this week it seems at least as possible that Eyal’s judgment is being affected by his feelings for Annie as well. So fair enough.

As the CIA continues to grapple with the consequences of the fake intel and the drone strike on Khalid Ansari, Arthur is summoned to appear before a Senate committee to explain himself, Joan goes all passive-aggressive with Annie, and Khalid’s girlfriend Megan goes missing from secure CIA custody. Annie, inevitably, takes this personally, and equally inevitably joins forces with Eyal to try and find Megan. By the end of the episode it isn’t entirely clear who the bad guy(s) is or are: Eyal, Mossad woman Rivka, both, or neither. The final scene, with Megan buying herself and Annie a whole heap of trouble by throwing her lot in with Khalid, added to the overall feeling that this episode was a set-up for the final two episodes of the season, and as such was decent but not exceptional by the show’s recent standards.

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Annie stakes her reputation on intel from Mossad man Eyal, leading to a drone attack on a suspected terrorist, and a cataclysmic falling out between Annie and Joan. Joan has personal problems as well: she’s knocking back the pills, but the only person she can talk to is ex-boyf Seth, much to the consternation of Arthur, who also backs Annie over Joan in the matter of the drone. We know where it’s going to lead, of course, but it’s still done very well, and enlivened by an attractive and measured supporting performance by Michelle Nolden as the suspected terrorist’s unsuspecting (?) girlfriend; Nolden’s new to me, although we’ll apparently see her in the next season of Nikita. Auggie directed, so not so much of him this week.

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Still punching well above its weight, Covert Affairs this week brought Annie back to Langley, after a slightly surreal detour to a horse farm where the CIA does its debriefs, and immediately linked her up again with handsome man-from-the-Mossad Eyal Lavine (Oded Fehr). This is a smart move as Fehr and Piper Perabo are a good double-act, and unlike the Annie/Auggie coupling it’s a partnership which can actually do some field work. (Although Auggie has clearly decided that it’s time to join the rest of the audience in shipping himself and Annie.)

One of the Mossad’s human assets has disappeared, as has her intelligence-gathering watch made by the famous McGuffin company. So the CIA and the Mossad are to work together to recover the watch, but Annie’s under instructions to “handle” Eyal, and vice versa. The episode has one or two pert observations to make about USA/Israeli relations, but without getting preachy, which wouldn’t work in this show. It turns out, though, that the Mossad is up to something else with Annie, and – at a guess – that “something else” might have necessitated Eyal’s rescue of Annie last week. Not only has Covert Affairs offered many other shows a lesson in how to handle a season-long arc, but episodes like this demonstrate how you can add layers of complexity without baffling or alienating an audience. Another really good episode in a really good season.

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If there were an Emmy for Most Improved Show, Covert Affairs would be a serious contender. When previewing this third season, I essentially described it as lightweight, amiable spy fluff. It was clear from episodes 1 and 2, though, that something was stirring, and so it has proved.

The remarkable improvement is probably due to a combination of factors. Jai (poor old Sendhil Ramamurthy, in another unlikeable role) was ruthlessly disposed of, and Anne Dudek limited to brief appearances. In addition the producers really did well with their new recruits:  Sarah “Nina Myers” Clarke is the embodiment of televisual evil sexiness, and Richard Coyle was a revelation as British financier, probable Russian spy, and Annie love interest Simon Fischer. I suspect that, on the back of this, there’ll be a big American TV gig in Coyle’s future.

On top of that the show actually committed to being a proper international spy drama with astute use of foreign location, rather than trying to make Canada look like Barcelona. And the show got its plotting right: I’m generally not a fan of season-long arcs, but that’s because shows don’t often do them well. Covert Affairs nailed it from the first episode of the season, and the result has been a show which has maintained its watchability while demanding to be taken a little more seriously.

And the actors have responded: in previous seasons, Auggie (Christopher Gorham) has seemed remarkably untroubled by his circumstances, but this time round Gorham’s shown both anger and vulnerability, and a sense that Auggie has many more battles to fight, mostly with himself. Piper Perabo has stepped up as well, convincingly portraying Annie in a conflicted relationship with Fischer, and torn between her mentors and the thrill of working for a new boss. And a boss who understands her, and who knew she’d fall for Fischer; as Lena said to Annie, “Mysterious bad boy with a clarity of purpose? Don’t tell me you don’t have a type.” Heh.

This episode picked up from the end of episode 10, in which Annie, deep in Russia, tracked down and shot Lena. Annie is then captured and interrogated in a Russian prison, but manages to escape with a bit of help from old Mossad chum Eyal, and with Auggie back home pleading with everyone to assist. It’s another good episode, with perhaps Perabo’s best Covert Affairs acting performance to date, and while the ending is a bit rushed and neat I’m not going to complain.

There are still a few episodes to go in this season, and I’m guessing that we’re not yet done with Jai’s death, Lena’s betrayal, the curiously tense marriage between Arthur and Joan, and the other themes of the season, not to mention the growing closeness between Annie and Auggie. If the standard can be maintained, though, this season will go down as an absolute triumph for the Covert Affairs team.