New surge of TV spy shows turn old plots on their heads
Here we are, a good two decades after the end of the Cold War and all the spy shows that staged its conflict, from 1952's Dangerous Assignment, to groovy 1960s offerings such as I Spy, to Scarecrow and Mrs. King in the 1980s. Yet there are more TV shows about spies than ever before.
Here we are, a good two decades after the end of the Cold War and all the spy shows that staged its conflict, from 1952's Dangerous Assignment, to groovy 1960s offerings such as I Spy , to Scarecrow and Mrs. King in the 1980s. Yet there are more TV shows about spies than ever before.
Many take us back to that long-gone era, but with a twist: Their heroes don't wear white hats. In fact, they are most decidedly the enemy.
Allegiance, which premiered Thursday on NBC, stars Hope Davis and Scott Cohen as a professional couple who have spied for Russia before and after the fall of Communism. Even their daughter (Margarita Levieva) is a mole, while their son (Gavin Stenhouse) is a CIA agent hot in pursuit of Russian agents.
Allegiance smells like a (staler) version of The Americans, FX's extraordinary drama about a married couple in the early 1980s who pass as American but are deep-cover KGB officers.
Scan TV schedules and you'll notice Russian spies are all over the place.
ABC's 2014 misfire The Assets starred British actor Jodie Whittaker as one of the counterespionage officers who exposed Aldrich Ames (Paul Rhys) as a Soviet mole in 1994.
ABC's one-season curio Pan Am (2011) showcased the work of Pan Am flight attendants in the 1960s who worked for the CIA.
And the network's post-WWII yarn Marvel's Agent Carter may be full of superhero tropes, but its hero (Hayley Atwell) owes more to Chandler, Hammett, and Fleming than comic books.
Even the Brits are at it. BBC America's The Game this fall was a lovely time capsule that took us to the heart of a 1970s mole hunt at MI6, while Foyle's War stars Michael Kitchen as an English police detective who joins MI5 after World War II.
The Australians are in the TV spy game, too. The stunning 2013 series Serangoon Road follows a freelance spy (Don Hany) in 1960s Singapore, one of the Cold War's hotter spots.
Today's most acclaimed spy series, Showtime's war-on-terror drama Homeland, is one of many that engage more contemporary matters, as did 24 and its sequel 24: Live Another Day. Also in the contemporary file are Rubicon, The Agency, E-Ring, Sleeper Cell, and The Grid.
Most of these spy stories focus on Western heroes, but a daring few take a new angle. The protagonists in The Americans, Homeland, The Assets, and Allegiance are the bad guys. In these dramas, the traitors' point of view prevails.
The KGB spies played by Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys in The Americans may be our enemies, but they are portrayed with no less understanding and love as 007 or any of his ilk. We sweat out their dangerous missions, eager to see them succeed. Only later do we realize we've been cheering on folks who want to destroy America.
Today, even heroes are tainted. Tom Hughes' character in The Game is a genius at hunting spies because he is, as it were, a recovering traitor: A year earlier, he had attempted to defect to the U.S.S.R.
Nicholas Brody, the decorated Marine sergeant-turned-congressman played by Damian Lewis in Homeland, may or may not be an al-Qaeda agent. He takes us on such a twisted path that we are never sure.
The reversal of point-of-view in Homeland and The Americans seems to suit an era filled with reports about Westerners who have joined the Jihadist cause, something that once seemed impossible.
The traditional mole story banks on paranoia: Anyone could be a Russian spy, even my neighbor. The new shows turn that on its head - I could be a double agent.
In these shows, patriotic confidence is far less stable than we think. They reflect a cultural situation in which political convictions, social values, and moral certitudes once thought inviolate have been so eroded, if not inverted, by modernity that they seem radically uncertain, moored in shifting ground.