It never happened for Piper Perabo at the movies. I think her face was too big for the screen. Imposing forehead, lush cheekbones, steep nose, a smile wide enough to swallow both Julia Roberts and Amanda Peet in one bite—hers is a severe and sculptural prettiness. Her hard-angled glamour is not of the girl-next-door school, nor is it the beauty mask of an instinctive screen goddess. Her exaggerated kisser, almost distractingly changeable from moment to moment, is so jarring that it must have shut her out of a few roles.
Or at least this is how a freshly minted fan of Perabo's—hooked after one viewing of the zippy spy show Covert Affairs (USA, Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET)—explains her career. In the decade since Perabo's meet-the-starlet turn in Coyote Ugly—Jerry Bruckheimer's contribution to the literature of female empowerment, promoting as it did a brand of third-wave feminism where the wave wets T-shirts—this bright actress has added scandalously few interesting films to her résumé. Accolades have been fewer yet, unless you count the Teen Choice Award she picked up for Cheaper by the Dozen (Choicest Movie Liplock, shared with Ashton Kutcher). In 2008, she earned good notices on Broadway in Neil LaBute's reasons to be pretty, but the highlight of Perabo's year at the cinema was her turn as Rachel Ashe Lynn, the pet-sitting ditz whose incompetence initiates the plot of Beverly Hills Chihuahua.
Her new show, created by Doug Liman—the adrenaline merchant who was helped to bring you the Bourne movies, Mr. & Mrs. Smith and perhaps the occasional bout of motion sickness—is streamlined and feisty in giving the members of the CIA's "Domestic Protection Division" things to run from and shoot at in the greater Washington area. But first and last, Covert Affairs is a zippy character study, and it puts Perabo's features to playful use in the earliest moments of the pilot, filling the screen with them in a context where they're begging to be studied. Our heroine is taking a lie-detector test that we're meant to interpret as a final technicality preceding her coming onboard at the CIA. The polygraph technician asks a few baseline questions first. Yes, her name is Annie Walker. Yes, she's 28 years old. "You reside in Washington, D.C.?" She answers, "Georgetown—yes," nodding proudly.
What sells this moment is the way Perabo, when saying "Georgetown," turns her elastic mouth down, fighting off the smirk of someone trying not to seem too pleased about where she lives. The moment places Annie nicely in the world of white-collar kids embarking on their Eastern Seaboard careers—a spot that this escapist fantasy does a remarkable job of illuminating. The show's sensitivity to the way Annie, in her first real job, looks at her boss with a daughter's eyes is canny. The product placement that finds her driving a red VW hatchback deserves some kind of status-symbol-of-the-month award.
The polygraph continues: "You speak six languages?" Yes—and, well, she could talk all day about her love of travel in any one of them, but there's an endearing nerdiness here that takes the edge off of both Perabo's high-impact charm and Annie's self-satisfaction.
Then, naturally, Annie's interrogator begins asking about her love life. Yes, her last serious relationship was two years ago. According to brief flashbacks, that relationship, largely consisting of long walks on the beach, was a three-week fling in Sri Lanka. "How was the sex?" According to the flashbacks, the sex involved billowing curtains and tribal beads and intertwined fingers. Experienced TV viewers interpret this to mean that the sex was vigorous, poetic, and so emotionally fulfilling as to defy communication. We also understand it was painful that the dream lover simply vanished, and we're eager to snoop for him all season long, whether he's as actual hunk or an abstraction. "If you join the CIA, will you be able to separate your work from your social life?" Here, executing her best trick of the whole episode, Perabo does a wicked job of answering a firm "Yes," acing the polygraph while smiling at her own lying eyes.