Primer is The A.V. Club’s ongoing series of beginners’ guides to pop culture’s most notable subjects: filmmakers, music styles, literary genres, and whatever else interests us—and hopefully you. Last year, we penned a Primer on culturally significant TV detectives. This week: A brief history of—and notable highlights from—television’s long-term love affair with spies, secret agents, and other adventurers who do the job ordinary citizens won’t.
TV Spies & Secret Agents 101: The Patriots
Espionage has been the subject of fiction at least as far back as 1821, when James Fenimore Cooper penned the novel The Spy, though the genre really took off at the dawn of the 20th century, when books like Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, Robert Erskine Childers’ The Riddle Of The Sands, and Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent—along with scattered Arthur Conan Doyle stories about Sherlock Holmes—popularized the idea of men who courted danger to serve a noble cause. Spies and secret agents became staples of the movies right from the start—particularly in the films of German genre-master Fritz Lang—and sparked something of a phenomenon in the early ’60s, when the Ian Fleming pulp hero James Bond hit the big screen.
Television quickly jumped onto the espionage bandwagon. Beginning in 1964, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. offered Robert Vaughn and David McCallum as international crime-fighters facing off against the world-domination-craving agents of THRUSH. When they weren’t jetting off to exotic locales, the good guys gathered in sterile gray rooms to hatch their plans alongside wall-sized computers—doing the people’s business as efficiently as possible. Much like the Bond films, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. became ever-more-infatuated with its fountain-pen communicators and pencil-thin air rifles, but U.N.C.L.E.’s biggest gimmick was McCallum’s character: a Russian fighting alongside the good guys. McCallum’s presence sent a message to Americans that bitter Cold War enemies could come together to fight the death-ray-wielding super-crooks that were the world’s real threat.
A year after U.N.C.L.E., TV producer Michael Garrison decided to extend the TV Western cycle by combining it with the Bond-ian pop-art spy thriller. The result was The Wild Wild West, which had Robert Conrad playing a suave, athletic secret agent who traveled across the country in a souped-up boxcar with his partner, hammy inventor Ross Martin. The two men attempted the ridiculous week after week, sneaking into impregnable fortresses (frequently in caves, which made for cheap sets) and smashing the super-machines of the future, created by the makeshift despots and mad scientists springing up in the hinterlands in the wake of the Civil War. Piling gimmick upon gimmick, The Wild Wild West offered crazy gadgets, campy villains, buddy comedy, and a winking disregard for historical accuracy. A pervasive Cold War anxiety also ran through the show, playing on the American fear of some vaguely exotic imperialist threat, manifested inside our borders.
The Wild Wild West showed how easily spy stories could be grafted onto other genres—as did the British series The Avengers, which debuted on ITV in 1961 as more of a detective show, then went on to become one the most popular examples of small-screen spy drama. The Avengers pioneered “spy-fi,” in which international intrigue ran second to science-fiction gimmicks and Dr. Doomish super-villains bent on world conquest. Add in high-tech gadgets and a general tendency to emphasize escapist adventure over realistic geopolitical gamesmanship, and The Avengers concocted a formula for success that kept it on the air for the rest of the decade. And it didn’t hurt that Patrick Macnee’s John Steed stood as a paragon of suave professionalism, nor that he was accompanied by a series of tantalizingly-outfitted female sidekicks like Honor Blackman, Diana Rigg, and Linda Thorson.
Though The Avengers was the quintessential British spy series, the UK kept pumping out new secret agents throughout the ’60s. Few of those shows were sillier than The Champions, another ITC effort that mixed state-sponsored capering with a dollop of the fantastic. In The Champions’ case, a trio of enforcers were blessed with super-powers—enhanced senses, telepathy, precognition, and super-strength—which they used to clandestinely protect the world from the petty dictators trying to rule it. The show was pure froth, pitched to more of a juvenile audience, with none of the overt winking of The Avengers.
In fact, even though the British and American agents alike took their missions seriously, there was a light-heartedness to the ’60s shows that became more dominant as the decade wore on. Perhaps that’s because it became harder to take spies seriously after Get Smart, the Mel Brooks/Buck Henry-created secret-agent parody that ran from 1965 to 1970, and which openly mocked espionage’s alphabet soup of agencies and agent names, as well as the craziness of the various spookware. Get Smart took the wind out of the sails of spy adventures, urging them to become either sillier or more sophisticated.
In the Bill Cosby/Robert Culp vehicle I Spy, for example, absurd world-conquering plots and impossible gadgetry took a back seat to banter. I Spy was as much a comedy as Get Smart—it even debuted the same year—but it relied on the chummy interplay of Cosby and Culp, who were cool and low-key even as they traveled the globe dispatching bad guys. I Spy was patriotic in its own way, too, making the U.S. look more integrated and progressive than it actually was at the time by portraying a black agent and a white agent as friends and equals, without ever making a big deal about it.
While other series were getting goofier, in 1966, Mission: Impossible went the other direction, bringing a touch of class to the genre. M:I stuck covert government agents into complicated caper plots, showing how an “Impossible Missions Force” busted up terrorist cells, mob bosses, and communist dictators by using disguises, deception, split-second timing, and switcheroos. Ringleader Steven Hill (later replaced by Peter Graves) would sort through his dossiers of available agents, nearly always settling on master of disguise Martin Landau, sexy supermodel Barbara Bain, circus strongman Peter Lupus, and guru gadgeteer Greg Morris. Then they’d all embark on an elaborate ruse that the audience at home usually had to figure out as it was happening. It was the spy series as sleight-of-hand puzzle, encouraging viewers to think more about the plots than the politics.
The spy genre hit a lull in the ’70s—perhaps because Watergate made the idea of wiretapping for the government seem a little less heroic—but it rebounded in the ’80s with shows like Scarecrow And Mrs. King and Airwolf, which took advantage of the Reagan-era resurgence in Cold War politicking to re-introduce the idea of extraordinary folk on the frontlines of the fight against terrorism and communism. Airwolf actually started as a more complex depiction of government service, with Jan-Michael Vincent playing a Rambo/Chuck Norris-type loner, unsure whether the super-secret agency he flew his special helicopter for was really on the right side. But by the second season, skepticism gave way to jingoism. As for Scarecrow & Mrs. King, it treated espionage as the backdrop to a grand love story, putting ordinary divorcee housewife Kate Jackson in peril week after week so suave spy Bruce Boxleitner could save her. The heroes’ romantic intentions were what mattered, not their career.
Perhaps not coincidentally, by the end of the ’80s, the spy-parodists were back on the case. The short-lived Fox sitcom The New Adventures Of Beans Baxter lightly roasted the whole notion of heroes with trenchcoats and earpieces by making its protagonist a teenage kid, brought into the business against his will. The idea that a dopey high-schooler could save the world as well as any specially trained operative punctured some of the genre’s pretensions. Similarly, just last year, ABC Family and comic-book writer Javier Grillo-Marxuach spoofed the square-jawed secret-agent prototype with The Middleman, a wonderfully deranged heroes-and-villains saga that celebrated righteousness even as it recognized how silly a devoted lawman can look.
In recent years, as America’s public image has taken a beating around the world, even the unapologetically patriotic secret-agent shows have contained an element of world-weariness and slow-burning frustration. Two weeks after 9/11, CBS debuted The Agency, which ran for two seasons, detailing the inner workings of the CIA. The Agency’s agents dealt with bureaucracy and internal corruption between missions that were often challenging for their diplomatic sensitivity as much as for the viciousness of the villains they went after. In 2006, around the time of the third anniversary of the start of the war in Iraq, CBS started airing The Unit, a series about paramilitary operatives and the families they leave behind when they go on missions. Co-created by Shawn Ryan (the man behind FX’s crooked-cops-can-be-pretty-effective drama The Shield) and playwright David Mamet (who shortly thereafter publicly renounced liberalism), The Unit was a complex portrait of the compromises and sacrifices required to keep the country safe. It was The Man From U.N.C.L.E. without the fancy gadgets, and Mission: Impossible with the complicated schemes. These men did their jobs with grit and guns.
Intermediate: The Pragmatists
Though few would dare question the patriotism of 24’s hero Jack Bauer—a man who’s given up every chance at a healthy, sane existence in order to protect the Stars, the Stripes, and all the geometry between—24 itself takes the conflicted emotions of The Agency and The Unit one step further by implying that patriotism isn’t always enough. For the first six seasons of the series (marked as “Days,” given the show’s real-time gimmick), Jack Bauer has been an on-again, off-again employee of the Counter Terrorist Unit, a government agency designed specifically to combat terrorist attacks inside the United States. As an agent, Jack has often worked undercover, even going so far as to get himself hooked on smack to infiltrate a drug cartel, but tough as the work has been, at least it’s easy to tell the bad guys from the good out in the field. Finding his way through the tricky maze of double-crossed loyalties and political infighting in the halls of CTU has proved tougher. Bauer’s agency has had more than its share of traitors over the years (at least one per Day), as well as some bureaucrats in upper management unwilling to give Jack the leeway he’s needed to get the job done. So Bauer, gifted with an unerring conviction in his own righteousness, has often been forced to strike out on his own. Spy shows are often based on the fantasy of people pretending to be someone else, but there’s always someone in a room somewhere who knows it’s all a game. An operative’s life is made exponentially more difficult when that someone starts changing the rules.
In a way, 24 is the prime example of the modern secret-agent show, wherein the heroes complete shadowy missions while fully aware that what they’re doing may not always be “right.” And if not 24, then perhaps the definitive 21st-century super-spy series is Alias. Created by J.J. Abrams—and marked by his unique ability to punch right to the heart of the zeitgeist—Alias featured all the elements of the spy hits of previous generations, including high-tech gadgets, international intrigue, flashy action sequences, and goofy disguises. But it was all compressed into a suitably modern sensibility, as Abrams added a lot of the crazed mythology that would pop up again in his series Lost, as well as relationship dramas for the ladies and a sexy, ass-kicking Jennifer Garner for the fellas. What made Alias feel especially cutting-edge was how it held its cards close to the chest regarding who, exactly, were the good guys. Garner’s Sydney Bristow, recruited fresh out of college, was barely allowed to get comfortable with her job before she found out that the agency she worked for was hurting her friends, destroying her family, and—for all she could tell—doing as much harm to the world as the terrorist outfits they claimed to oppose. Keeping the goals and leadership of groups like SD-6, APO, and Prophet Five murky kept Bristow on constantly shifting moral ground—and kept the audience guessing.
In the contemporary TV spy series, there are fewer Jack Bauers than there are Sydney Bristows. More often than not, today’s heroes tend to be recruited through deceit—or drawn in by circumstance. Consider the current Chuck, in which an ordinary computer geek has government secrets downloaded into his brain, and is subsequently forced into service. Or the short-lived syndicated series She Spies, which resembled the movie version of Charlie’s Angels in style and tone, while following three female agents who worked for the government in order to atone for past crimes. Even the Canadian series Intelligence—about the inner workings of a Vancouver organized-crime unit—splits its story between a driven agent and the mob boss she converts into an informant, and implies that both characters do what they do because they have to, not because they want to.
Then again, that sense of espionage and other covert ops as “just a job” has its roots in the same ’60s TV spy boom that produced The Patriots. In spite of its early-’60s timing and surface similarities to the James Bond oeuvre, the ITV series Danger Man (a.k.a. Secret Agent in the U.S.) largely distinguished itself by how different it was from other contemporary spy shows. Starring Patrick McGoohan as secret agent John Drake (initially an agent of NATO, but retconned in the second series to work for an MI-6 analogue), Danger Man toned down many of the hallmarks of the super-spy genre to a refreshing degree. Drake seemed more like Everyman than Superman, solving his missions with good old hard work and determination instead of insane gadgets and high-flying derring-do. Those missions were also much more straightforward and realistic; Drake’s job was to stabilize struggling democracies and maintain an often-bloody political status quo. In fact, in its portrayal of a spy engaged in the covert cloak-and-dagger work of international espionage, as well as in its ambivalent moral tone (missions were often qualified successes, if not failures, and audiences were clearly shown that innocent people often got hurt in pursuit of what the powers that be considered a greater good), Danger Man anticipated the grim, dirty Cold War spy films of the 1970s. In addition, Patrick McGoohan’s portrayal of a spy often seriously at odds with his paymasters was a meaningful foreshadowing of his most famous role, in The Prisoner.
American television also imported the British spy series The Baron, with Steve Forrest as an art expert whose jet-setting lifestyle was frequently interrupted by the government’s demand that he help them on a case involving a priceless antique. And ABC created its own arcane-specialist-impressed-into-government-service show in 1968 with It Takes A Thief, with Robert Wagner as a cat burglar who was asked to steal sensitive materials on behalf of Uncle Sam. Forrest’s character in The Baron was much more contented with his lot than Wagner’s in It Takes A Thief, but for both, government work was a sidelight, not a calling.
In some ways, The Equalizer, a CBS crime drama from the late 1980s, wasn’t a spy show at all. Most episodes played out like slightly twisted detective stories, or vigilante crime-fighter adventures. (Indeed, a bit too often, the show seemed to aspire to be nothing more than a thinking man’s A-Team.) But at its best moments—inevitably buoyed by Edward Woodward’s always-meaty performance as the title character—The Equalizer reminded sharp viewers of the best aspects of previous generations of spy shows. Woodward played Robert McCall, an embittered veteran of a mysterious CIA-type outfit, who had retired from the espionage game and become a sort of combination bodyguard/avenger who hired himself out to desperate people whose lives were in danger. Viewers were kept on their toes by the appearance of shadowy figures from Woodward’s past, alternately acting as allies, informants, or antagonists, and by hints that his work was meant to atone for various morally dubious actions he’d committed in the past. The Equalizer was only ever as good as its individual scripts; it lacked a show-runner with the ambition to give it an overarching narrative, but it deserves credit for a dark and sometimes gripping approach to the spy drama that nicely blended it with other existing action genres in an interesting way.
Advanced: The Rogues
Sort of an Equalizer for the 21st century, USA Network’s current hit original series Burn Notice stars Jeffrey Donovan as an ex-spy who hires himself out as a freelance justice-dispenser to the aggrieved citizens of Miami. The difference between The Equalizer and Burn Notice? Donovan’s Michael Westen has been “burned,” meaning that he was dismissed from the agency and turned into a non-person, for reasons no one will explain. Two-thirds of the average Burn Notice episode is dedicated to the client-of-the-week, and the other third follows Westen’s attempts to figure out who burned him, and to get his reputation and job back. Mostly though, Burn Notice is about the hero explaining to the audience, in super-cool voiceovers, exactly how to plant bugs or break into office buildings or plant evidence or bullet-proof a car. Though more a fun, frivolous hour of television than anything else, Burn Notice carries the underlying message that there are no secrets anymore, and that the only loyalty that matters is to the people the hero knows and trusts best—including those of us watching at home.
Where The Patriots do their jobs out of some rarely wavering commitment to the cause, and The Pragmatists fight on despite uncertainty about the validity of what they’re doing, The Rogues exist in a much murkier realm—often distrusted by the very people they’re supposed to be helping. In the TV adaptation of the film La Femme Nikita, Peta Wilson plays a falsely accused criminal who works on behalf of a shadowy agency that threatens to kill her if she doesn’t comply. Much of the tension in the series is derived from the heroine’s attempts to get out from under the thumb of the agents who control her. Similarly, the too-abruptly cancelled CBS series Now And Again follows the plight of a middle-aged family man who has his brain transplanted into the body of a super-soldier, and is kept captive by the government except when he goes on missions. When he can, he sneaks away to see the family who thinks he’s dead—and who doesn’t recognize him in his new body. Though there’s rarely any doubt that the hero’s missions are vital, he maintains his own private directive: to escape as soon as possible.
Of course not all Rogues suffer such existential crises. In the early-’70s British series Jason King, Peter Wyngarde played a detective-turned-novelist who found it impossible to get any work done because the government kept drawing him into their missions against his will. Though little-known in the U.S., the one season of Jason King had a lasting cultural impact, with the character’s natty clothes and ice-cool style serving as an inspiration for Austin Powers, the Invisibles character “Mr. Six,” and the X-Men villain Jason Wyngarde, among others. Jason King was like The Saint given a Carnaby Street upgrade.
And speaking of perhaps the most famous Rogue in espionage fiction, Leslie Charteris’ legendary character The Saint (a.k.a. Simon Templar) began life in a series of pulp novels in the late ’20s as more of a common adventurer, but by the time Britain’s ITV brought the character to television in 1962, he was fully transformed into yet another 007-style international man of mystery. (The comparison was made pretty explicit in the series, and it didn’t help matters much when Roger Moore, who played Templar, went on to replace Sean Connery as James Bond.) Even while fighting globetrotting super-villains and using Q-style gadgets, though, Templar retained his own distinct characteristics which distinguished him from the average super-spy. For one thing, he didn’t work for any government agency; he was more of a jet-setting free agent (and one, it was often hinted, with a criminal past) who would work with organizations like Scotland Yard, but only when it suited him, and always on his own terms. Templar was a man with his own moral code, impenetrable as it may have been, and he was more than willing to stand against people like his sometime-ally Inspector Teal when they didn’t live up to that code. Robin Hood or “robbing hood,” the Saint was always his own man.
If the super-spy genre can be said to have a logical end-point, it was reached in 1968 with the conclusion of Patrick McGoohan and George Markstein’s brilliant, frustrating ITV series The Prisoner. It’s the story of an unnamed super-spy (whom fans have thought for decades is meant to be Danger Man’s John Drake) who resigns over an unrevealed moral conflict with his superiors and gets banished to a mysterious island. An endless series of interrogators, always designated Number Two, attempt to get the hero—who is alternately enraged, animalistic, cooperative, and calculating—to explain why he resigned. Throughout the brief (17-episode) series, the people who run the island use drugs, flashbacks, seduction, torture, betrayal, and every other trick in the book to get McGoohan’s character to reveal a secret they probably already know. The moral struggle is thus subtly altered, and the entire dynamic of the spy genre is changed. It’s no longer about fighting the enemy, but determining who the enemy is. It’s no longer about who deserves your allegiance, but who owns your conscience. The Prisoner often floated adrift in genre clichés, and its surrealistic elements could be hokey instead of intriguing. The show was wildly inconsistent. But McGoohan was always magnificent, and The Prisoner took the spy genre as far as television has ever allowed it to go.
1. The Prisoner
Other spy series have considered what a life of secrets and voyeurism does to the human psyche, but few have been so successful at finding the genre’s layers within layers. This is the secret-agent show as radical pop art.
2. Mission: Impossible
From the propulsive score to the stylish cinematography to the cast of earnest specialists, Mission: Impossible brought a touch of class and professionalism to the genre. The series was a refreshing oasis of classic adventure storytelling in an era of parody and camp.
3. The Avengers
Of course, camp isn’t always a deal-breaker. The Avengers rarely took its supervillains or heroic archetypes all that seriously, but its over-the-top design and droll humor helped redefine spook cool.
4. Burn Notice
Spies don’t get much cooler than Michael Westen, an oft-betrayed and abandoned good soldier who by all rights should be a pitiable, tortured soul. Instead, Westen passes his days trying to live right and help people, while deploying all his spy know-how with a thin little grin that lets the audience know it’s okay to enjoy themselves, because the hero sure is.
Though convoluted to the extreme, Alias understood the two elements that make up a good spy show: mind-bending double-crosses and snazzy outfits.