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Covert Affairs photo
In last week’s episode of covert Affairs, a CIA agent played by Piper Perabo (center) has to find a traitor within NASA. (credit: USA Network)

Tinker, Tailor, NASA, Spy


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Back when The X-Files was still on the air a friend of mine, who happens to be a television writer, joked that he had the perfect story idea for an X-Files episode: “The scene opens with Agent Scully in her apartment in her underwear…”

Alas, it’s no longer much of a joke. A lot of television starts with that kind of sophisticated opening. Take Covert Affairs, for instance.

Those of us who bristle every time that we see inaccuracy in space-themed shows (guilty!) need to understand that Hollywood writers and producers are interested in entertainment, not education. But still, there are limits.

What? You’ve never heard of it? That’s understandable. It runs on the USA cable network, which unlike, say, the TNT cable network, not to mention AMC or HBO, doesn’t try too hard to produce decent shows. I had never seen Covert Affairs either, until somebody tipped me off that they were doing a show about a spy at NASA. So I watched it, because I’m interested in seeing how NASA gets portrayed in popular culture (if you can call an obscure TV show on basic cable “popular culture”).

Based upon my viewing of only a single episode, the show appears to be a lightweight relationship/workplace drama filled with minor, semi-amusing scenes of people having interpersonal incidents at their jobs. Yeah, there’s spy stuff, but the producers don’t seem all that interested in allowing the espionage to dominate the stories. One of the themes seems to be that even though it’s the CIA, it’s not that different from working in a law firm or insurance company. There’s interoffice politics, people cutting in line for coffee, and squabbles over accounting. In fact, a lot of the scenes are relatively boring. The show is not edgy or dark because apparently the USA network does not do edgy or dark.

The show “stars” Piper Perabo, or—to steal a line from a late, lamented television show of the 1990s—it’s more accurate to say that most of the time the camera is generally pointed at Piper Perabo. Perabo is certainly not a household name, but if she sounds slightly familiar that’s probably because at some point you’ve seen the horrible 2000 movie Coyote Ugly, about a rowdy establishment whose main selling point is that the waitresses are hot, sassy women who dance on the bar and spray seltzer water at drunken males. She played a young singer who wanted to follow her dream. But in Covert Affairs she plays a spy for the CIA, named Annie Walker. Based upon a single episode, I did not get the sense that she’s a highly trained operative with a license to kill. She seems mostly like a lip delivery vehicle.

The episode started with Annie waking up refreshed in the morning only to discover that she’s overslept because her power failed—see? Spies are just like us! She then hops around her apartment in her skimpy underwear, puts on a sexy form-fitting business suit, and heads off to CIA Headquarters.

Annie is soon briefed about her newest case. Some CIA official shows her reconnaissance satellite footage of Colombia, South America. Apparently the satellite hovers over Colombia twenty-four hours a day, because it went inoperative for a couple of hours and when the picture came back up, F.A.R.C. rebels have moved military vehicles into a sensitive area that could allow them to invade the Panama Canal. Annie is assigned to investigate why the satellite failed during that crucial moment—and it turns out that the spy satellite belongs to… NASA.

Annie comes to the man’s defense, but her socially inept coworker says it’s open and shut: “NASA engineers are poorly paid and underappreciated, two qualities that fit the treasonous profile.” (Wake up Charlie Bolden!)

The characters speak pseudo-spy jargon, implying that the writers at least have some familiarity with the intelligence community, so it’s not clear if they actually know that spy satellites are operated by the National Reconnaissance Office and not NASA. My suspicion is that they know that, but they decided that a NASA-themed plot was something that the audience could relate to. They wanted to use NASA in their story, so they twisted reality a lot to include it. Those of us who bristle every time that we see inaccuracy in space-themed shows (guilty!) need to understand that Hollywood writers and producers are interested in entertainment, not education. But still, there are limits. Would it have hurt all that much to make the compromised NASA satellite something other than a spy satellite?

The episode is filled with a lot of gobbledygook. Annie was selected for the assignment because it turns out that she’s a closet space geek who even went to Space Camp as a youngster. Her cover is that she works for the Smithsonian and she is sent over to NASA Headquarters on “Mars Day” to interview four possible suspects. Her colleagues will analyze the video to find any signs of deception. This apparently does not violate domestic spying rules because NASA asked for the investigation. She is warned ahead of time that due to budget cuts, morale at NASA is in the pits.

The show’s writers get props for getting NASA’s Headquarters street address correct (so they used Google). But the Covert Affairs NASA HQ is nicer than the real NASA HQ. Then again, the Covert Affairs Washington is nicer than the real Washington, because it’s filmed in Toronto in the summer. The streets and sidewalks are cleaner, and unlike Washington, everybody isn’t full of themselves. But the end result is that the show feels very Canadian.

At NASA HQ Annie is quickly exposed to several caricatures who seem like odd choices to have access to a spy satellite. There’s the extremely nerdy engineer (with a background in physics and aeronautical engineering as well as Ph.D.’s in “music theory” and “practical philosophy”?), the hyperactive female scientist who wants to get transferred to Cape Canaveral because that’s “where the action is” (not if you’re a scientist), and the cocky astronaut with the southern drawl who walks around in his jumpsuit. They’re NASA employees as envisioned by people who know nothing about NASA.

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to spot the spy, who happens to be a rocket scientist. He’s a NASA engineer whose job is to work on “maintenance” for satellites, and he’s the only apparently normal and sympathetic member of the group. But Annie’s handler tags him as a liar. Annie comes to the man’s defense, but her socially inept coworker says it’s open and shut: “NASA engineers are poorly paid and underappreciated, two qualities that fit the treasonous profile.” (Wake up Charlie Bolden!)

Annie gets herself invited over to the man’s house and meets his brilliant teenage son. They go up on the rooftop for barbecue and to watch the stars come out, because the suspect is also an amateur astronomer. That’s even more ludicrous than the idea of NASA operating spy satellites—you cannot see the stars from the streets of Washington.

Like lots of espionage shows, it runs fast and loose with the facts. After some kvetching about how it would be illegal to wiretap the guy’s phone, the spooks instead decide to break into his house and plant listening and video devices. There also should be some kind of penalty, like severe beating, for television writers who invoke the “State Secrets Act.” The degree to which the writers don’t understand espionage, or anything, really, is demonstrated by a subplot involving the CIA director wanting to grab headlines by telling the world that the CIA built a girls’ school in Afghanistan—in the real world, this would make the school a target.

Is there anything to learn about how NASA is treated in popular culture from this episode of Covert Affairs? Not much, actually.

I’ll cut to the chase: the engineer’s guilty. But it turns out that he’s concealing the fact that it was his son who originally started spying for F.A.R.C. after being approached by a hot redheaded agent. The son started out by gathering information on his father’s work and providing it to the rebels. The father then took over to protect his son. Annie and the kid are chased by a couple of F.A.R.C. agents. Surprisingly, even though F.A.R.C. is a South American terrorist faction, they have a liberal hiring policy, because they have an attractive redheaded woman and an African American man on their payroll. (Neither one says anything, which is probably an indication that the director lacked the budget to pay actors to say lines.) There’s a rather lame-hearted effort to stage a fight scene in the basement of a planetarium where flashing lights conceal the fact that Piper Perabo does not really know kung fu, and then the show is pretty much over.

There have been other television shows that have occasionally featured a space theme. Law and Order: Criminal Intent did an episode in 2007 about an astronaut murder that was based upon events “ripped from the headlines.” Although they did not specifically refer to NASA, it was not the kind of publicity the agency would have sought. CSI Miami also did an episode about a murderous space tourism executive (see “Space cops”, The Space Review, March 1, 2010). Is there anything to learn about how NASA is treated in popular culture from this episode of Covert Affairs? Not much, actually. NASA is portrayed as a place of dreams, but also budget cutbacks, bad morale, nerdy engineers, and, yes, sympathetic traitors.

But mostly, Covert Affairs is a lousy show with well-dressed, attractive people. When this episode is repeated, don’t watch it, not even if you’re a “poorly paid and underappreciated” NASA engineer. Not even to see an opening shot of Piper in her skivvies.


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