“Not Every Conspiracy is a Theory”
[Slogan for the TV Series “Rubicon” (2010)]
The agent hunts his quarry who is usually operating in darkness and shadow. He must not let this asset get away. The agent knows that the asset may have alternative routes nearby for quick escape. If the asset escapes the agent, further secrets may be revealed to other assets that will put the agent at risk of mission failure. Worse, the asset may even cause further damage to the surrounding areas if not stopped. What can the agent do? Well, there are two options that he can choose. Option One: He can just press on and hope that he can counter any of his opponent’s counter measures while foiling the asset’s evil intentions. Or Option Two:
He can just admit that it’s time to just call Orkin or Terminix to help him get rid of that Damn bug problem in his house…
Oh, Hi everyone! I almost forgot! It’s that time of the month for my next Blog Post! Well, this month’s topic is espionage in the movies and on TV. However, there are so many choices that I’ve decided to do it in two parts. The first part will discuss espionage for TV, and Cable. The next part will focus just on espionage in the movies. To begin, TV shows in the 1950s regarding this subject were pretty limited. The few espionage shows during that time fell into two groups: (1) shows with a lone agent or diplomatic courier going to some exotic locale on some mission or (2) hunting Communist agents (AKA RUSSIANS!!!) in the good old patriotic USA. For the first group you had such classics (?) as “Dangerous Assignment” (1951-52) with suave sophisticated Brian Donlevy (!!!) sent all over the world doing missions involving international intrigue disguised as a debonair foreign correspondent or “Passport to Danger” (1954-58) with suave diplomatic courier Cesar Romero (!!!) delivering messages to America’s Allies. Regarding Donlevy, he looked about as suave and debonair as a truck driver, and Romero looked like the only message he could deliver to anyone was in how to dance the rumba! For the second group you had “I Led 3 Lives” (1953-56) with Richard Carlson based on a book about an advertising executive who infiltrated the U.S. Communist Party on behalf of the FBI. I’ll bet you never knew that Don (Jon Hamm) Draper on “Mad Men” was actually working with the FBI to root out Communists on Madison Avenue did you? This type of slop was the norm during the McCarthy era blacklisting days of network TV. However, once the 1960s rolled in, things finally started to change.
James Bond became popular when the first Bond film, “Doctor No” (1962) made it to the big screen. In America, three TV shows later capitalized on this. The first and most obvious one was “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” (1964-68) on NBC which starred Robert Vaughn and David McCallum as agents for said organization fighting a never ending battle against a terror organization called THRUSH (no I am not going to explain either acronym). This type of espionage was strictly ridiculous (just like James Bond) but it was a hit with audiences and even had a later spin-off series called, “The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. (which was a flop). Actually, except for the first year of the show, “The Man…” was not very good either. However, that first year was terrific due to Producer Sam Rolfe and Executive Producer Norman Felton who were both co-creators of the show. It combined tongue in cheek humor, use of various gadgets, and action and adventure which was fun and not too unbearably outlandish. Unfortunately, it fell apart after the first year when Rolfe left the show, and Felton made a critical error by trying to emanate the early success of the “Batman” TV show on ABC. What did he do? He moved the direction of the show more towards self-parody and slapstick and it sunk right to the bottom of the toilet bowl (which is where Batman never left to begin with) and it never recovered.
The other two hit espionage shows then that I want to quickly mention were also popular but for different reasons. They were “I-Spy” (1965-68) and “Mission Impossible” (1966-73). “I-Spy” starred Robert Culp and Bill Cosby as a pair of agents using the cover of a tennis pro and his trainer to go on missions around the world. It was a hit, not because it went into much espionage detail but rather because it was actually shot on location in color, was more realistic, focused on the buddy-buddy relationship between the two leads, and broke ground with Cosby becoming the first African American actor in a lead role. “Mission…” told the exploits of a team of secret government agents known as the Impossible Missions Force (IMF) where they were assigned a mission that required the team to be made up of agents having special skills that could be utilized to accomplish their mission. It was popular, won numerous Emmy Awards, and lasted a long time with numerous actors leaving the show and being replaced by others and not slowing down the show’s long running success at all. Unfortunately, “Mission…” along with the aforementioned “I-Spy” and “U.N.C.L.E.” were pretty clunky TV shows which really didn’t address the complexities of espionage, had weak storylines and cardboard characterization, and were not even very accurate at all. As for the tape recording burning up after you hear the recorded message, well, I think they’d be out of luck if they’d try to deliver messages that way today. Only one other show back then touched on espionage in a realistic way, and it helped to lead into more adult portrayals of espionage on TV for years to come. That show was “Secret Agent” (1964-68).
The British always seemed to do spy/espionage shows better than America even up to this present day. Maybe it helped that they had great writers that actually were in the secret service and whose works or ideas could be adapted to the genre very well like Graham Greene, John le Carre, and even Ian Fleming and Frederick Forsyth (although they were never considered great writers) along with other fine writers like Len Deighton and John Buchan for example. They could even spoof the genre better with their show, “The Avengers” (1964-69) starring Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg as a pair of amusing and fanciful secret agents.
“Secret Agent” starred Patrick McGoohan as John Drake, a British secret agent who worked alone on missions all around the world. The hour show was resurrected from an earlier half hour show called “Danger Man” (1960-62) which allowed for better storylines and character development. “Agent” was the antithesis of James Bond in that it was realistic, with Drake portrayed as a cool professional who used his wits and his brain while having a dry scene of humor but who was still human and could make mistakes. McGoohan, an intense actor, was terrific in the role, and he imparted his character with a strong moral core which had Drake, at times question the actions of his superiors. In real life McGoohan was a strong Catholic and a dedicated family man so he had his character almost never use firearms (although Drake was a capable shot), and he refused to have Drake outright seduce or romance any females as a part of his assignment although he could be charming, witty, and flirtatious at times. Drake handled trouble with his fists and the show’s action sequences were always top notch. The scripts were equally well written and very complex. I always felt that there was so much story per episode that I wondered how they could ever fit it all into a one hour time slot which was rare for a TV show. It was a huge hit in England and could have continued longer but McGoohan quit the show to star in his own passion project, “The Prisoner” the following year. Fun fact: McGoohan was twice offered the role of James Bond but turned it down cold (it went against his Catholic views) but he recommended his friend, Sean Connery for the role. And the rest, as they say, was history!
After the sixties, espionage shows finally started to come of age all the way up to the present day with even some good ones developed in the United States like “Alias” (2001-06) and “24” (2001-10). Also, adaptions of novels by John le Carre and Len Deighton were made into terrific mini-series. For le Carre there were outstanding adaptions of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” (1979) and its sequel, “Smiley’s People” (1982) with a terrific performance by the always great Alec Guinness as counter espionage head George Smiley, and much later fine adaptions of “The Night Manager” (2016) and “The Little Drummer Girl” (2018) on AMC Network. For Deighton it was “Game, Set, and Match” (1988), an adaption of three of his series of books about espionage agent Bernard Samson hunting moles in British Intelligence with a fine performance by veteran actor Ian Holm (even though Deighton hated it because Holm was miscast for the role). Despite that, it was still very good.
Of course there were still stupid espionage shows around like “Strike Back” (2011-20) about a small special ops British/American team habitually hunting terrorists where basically each episode consisted of more explosions than July 4th on the Mall in D.C., more people killed than the battle of Antietam, and, at least, for the first four years, just about every good looking female in each episode stripping down to have sex with someone. However, what did you expect? After all, the show was co-produced by Skin… I mean, Cinemax (so you know it just had to be a quality effort, right?) You also had overrated spy shows like “The Americans” (2013-18) and “Homeland” (2011-20). Why overrated you may ask? Well, for “The Americans” deep cover Russian spies do not actively carry out assassinations, commit sabotage, develop assets, etc. They are supposed to just collect information! As for “Homeland” besides the far-fetched gaps in logic and unbelievable storylines, do you honestly believe that the CIA would allow someone bipolar (Claire Danes) to not only be a field agent, but still continue to be an agent at all after bedding and assisting a suspected terrorist (Damian Lewis) to escape along with continually breaking rules and protocol more frequently than kids in a kindergarten class?
However, good espionage dramas did not even have to take place in our present day nor just be British or American. Two such examples I want to mention are “Turn: Washington’s Spies” (2014-17) and “Fauda” (2015 – present). “Turn” was based on the book, “Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring”. It starred Jamie Bell as Abraham Woodhull, a poor farmer who was one of the actual individuals recruited into the spy ring and who ultimately became their top spy. Bell portrays Woodhull as an ordinary man who is not especially brave or even too smart but he is fast thinking and adaptable when under pressure. It’s a very realistic and believable performance and Bell is wonderful in the main role. He is helped by a strong cast of actors who are not necessarily well known but play their historical roles very well. It lasted four seasons and got better every year which was a rarity for a TV show.
“Fauda” which means “Chaos” in Hebrew, is an Israeli TV show about an elite Israeli terrorist undercover unit that hunts terrorists in occupied Palestinian territories. It stars Lior Raz as Doron an ex member of the unit who re-joins the unit to hunt a dangerous terrorist who was originally thought dead. Raz was co-creator of the show and he actually served in Israel’s undercover unit in the Palestinian territories which helped him in developing this show. Fun Fact: Raz also lived in the United States for awhile, and was hired by a security contracting firm as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s personal bodyguard (and he’s scarier looking than Arnold ever was in “The Terminator”). Raz’s Doran is short tempered, violent, foolishly risk taking, maybe suffering from PTSD, and possibly unstable. Despite that, he can also invoke sympathy despite all of his faults. Raz gives a complex and credible performance. Doran and all the members of his team along with civilians on both sides and the terrorists themselves show the physical, emotional, spiritual, and ideological toll that is felt from their constant wars with each other. This show has been, justifiably, criticized for it’s inaccuracies in presenting Palestinian society and storylines that are highly suspect in accuracy and believability. However, the suspense, acting, spy craft, and especially, action are very good. It’s worth seeing and three seasons in, it’s still going strong.
The last three espionage shows that I want to praise are sort of oddities. One was a show that lasted only 3 seasons with an ending clouded by a real life mystery. The second was a show that only lasted one season and deserved a better fate. The third has only been on one year but has already received the highest viewing audience in this country’s history. Curious Dear Reader? Well let me begin with telling you about a British espionage series called “Sandbaggers” (1978-80).
This espionage drama starred Roy Marsden as Neil Burnside, head of Director of Operations (D-Ops) of the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS, also known as MI6). “Sandbaggers” doesn’t focus too much on portrayal of actual operations in the field but rather on Headquarters conflicts between different Departments and individuals along with other countries Agency heads and their associates. This was highly unusual for an espionage drama but it was interesting and amazingly accurate. That was due to Ian Mackintosh, the creator of the series, who was a Scottish former naval officer turned television writer. He portrays how this type of work affects individuals’ personal and professional lives and how ruthless and self-serving these people really are which is expressly epitomized by the character of Burnside. Marsden’s Burnside just might be the most cold blooded, ruthless, self-serving, misogynous, and deceitful Bastard in all of TV espionage history. He destroys lives all around him both in the field, at Headquarters and elsewhere, and too often it is all for nothing. About the only other writer to ever show this level of nihilistic bleakness of the espionage profession was John le Carre. The series only lasted three seasons and consisted of just twenty episodes. It could have lasted more seasons but it ended abruptly with the mysterious death of Ian Mackintosh in 1979.
The show supposedly ran into problems due to its authenticity of how the British intelligence service actually worked which led to speculation as to whether Mackintosh once worked for or was even still working for SIS. For the drama’s second season one episode was even vetoed from being made because it would have revealed sensitive information that would have violated Britain’s Official Secrets Act. On July 1979, Mackintosh and three others were declared lost at sea after their single-engine aircraft supposedly disappeared over the Pacific Ocean near Alaska after a radio call for help. To add to the mystery, the aircraft supposedly stopped at an abandoned USAF base earlier and later crashed in the one small area not covered by either U.S. or Soviet radar. He was only 38 years old. Since Mackintosh wrote all of the episodes but only completed four of the seven episodes for the 3rd season, other writers had to be brought in to write the final three episodes. After that was done, the show’s producers realized that no one could write the episodes as well as Mackintosh so the series was abruptly canceled. To this day, no one has ever found any additional information as to what really happened!
The next espionage series I want to praise is the conspiracy thriller, “Rubicon” (2010) on AMC Network. Rubicon starred James Badge Dale as Will Travers, leader of a team of analysts working for the American Policy Institute (API), an international intelligence think tank located in New York City. His expertise is pattern recognition and when he recognizes one in the crossword puzzles of several U.S. newspapers, all published the same day, he brings it to the attention of his boss who promptly dismisses his concerns. However, when shortly afterward his boss mysteriously dies in a commuter train accident, Will assumes his former boss’s position and slowly starts to suspect that (1) he might have actually uncovered a clue to a potential conspiracy that might threaten National Security, (2) his boss’s death might not be an accident, and (3) API might actually be a part of the conspiracy. “Rubicon” was created by Jason Horwitch and it was conceived along the lines of 1970s paranoid/conspiracy films like “The Parallax View” and “The Conversation”. The show was unusual in that it is a slow moving thinking man’s thriller where one gets to know the different individuals on a personal level while having to pay close attention to a word or a gesture that might have meaning later on. Like “Sandbaggers” much of the drama involves interaction between individuals inside drab office spaces eliciting a slow feeling of unease and paranoia.
The show only lasted one season which might have been due to it’s slow pace which forced the viewer to pay close attention as things slowly developed. However, AMC also had great success with another little slow moving drama by the name of “Mad Men” which only won the Emmy for Best Outstanding Drama four years in a row so it’s puzzling why they pulled the plug on “Rubicon” so soon. It also didn’t help that Horwitch left the series after the first two episodes due to, once again….. Creative Differences! After his departure the series shifted even more into workplace dynamics rather than the conspiracy aspects which might have slowed it down even more. However, even with this change, it still works! The scripts are excellent and Dale, an underrated actor, plays an ordinary individual trust into a situation that he ever so slowly feels may risk his life. He is ably assisted by a terrific supporting cast consisting of Annie Parisse, Miranda Richardson, Arliss Howard, and Michael Cristofer (probably using this role as a tune-up for “Mr. Robot”) as the head of API. As for Horwitch, check out another fine espionage show called “Berlin Station” (2016-19) where he was the Executive Producer and show runner. Maybe you just can’t keep a good conspiracy theorist down!
The last espionage series that I want to comment on and praise has only been on for one year but it has already achieved the highest ever viewing figures for a new BBC drama in the multichannel era for Britain (Yep, it’s another British show folks!). That show is the critically acclaimed “Bodyguard” (2018). It stars Richard Madden (“Game of Thrones”) as David Budd, a Scottish Afghanistan war veteran suffering from PTSD who is estranged from his wife. He is now working as a Principal Protection Officer (PPO) and assigned to protect an ambitious and controversial Home Secretary Julia Montague (Keeley Hawes) whose politics he despises and who a lot of people may want to harm. As Budd assumes his duties they unexpectedly find themselves growing closer to each other resulting in an assignation. Ultimately, the subsequent fallout from the affair may put Budd’s career, his emotional stability, and his life at risk.
“Bodyguard” was created and written by Jed Mercurio who has a long track record in creating complex heart pounding and suspenseful procedurals like his terrific long-running “Line of Duty” series (2012-19). This show is every bit as twisty with the suspense nerve wracking. The first 20 minutes of the very first episode has you on the edge of your seat and the series takes off from there (that episode along with the show itself were nominated for Emmys). Even though this drama isn’t exactly espionage, it is a thriller touching on national security so, as far as I’m concerned, that’s close enough. The show is anchored by the outstanding performance of Madden as Budd (Hey, Emmys are you blind? He deserved one too!) His Budd convincingly runs the gamut of human emotions from serious professional to someone emotionally fragile and afraid. Supposedly, this series was only to be for one season but now there are rumors that there may be a second season. One can only hope that is true. Also, another rumor making the rounds is that Madden might be a new contender to become the next James Bond whenever Daniel Craig finally turns in his shoulder holster. That is something that I wouldn’t be against at all. Now that I have told you that bit of news, I will now bring this post to a close until next month when we move onto espionage in the movies!
In the meantime, keep your wrap around shades in a drawer until then!
3 thoughts on “Spy vs. Spy (Part I)!”
Yes!…“The Sandbaggers” was awesome – I have the entire series on DVD. There was a comic book series, published about 15 years ago, called “Queen and Country” which is essentially a sequel to “The Sandbaggers.” I highly recommend it.
Completely agree with your comments about “The Americans” and “Homeland” – vastly overrated.
I love “Danger Man/Secret Agent” – I recently rewatched the entire series on Amazon. It’s been decades since I watched it and was glad to find that it holds up very well.
One recent series that I liked was “Counterpart” staring J.K. Simmons. It was part SF, part espionage series about a “Cold War” between two parallel Earths.
Great article Nelson – a favorite topic of mine.
Thank you! “Counterpart” was very good too. Rare that they could mix espionage and S/F together and make it work so well. And K.K. Simmons was terrific. How he could switch into playing two completely different personalities so smoothly was just amazing!
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Thanks Nelson. As always, interesting and informative. Agreed with most everything you said. Secret Agent was my favorite of the oldies. We also didn’t like The Americans or Homeland.
One series Gloria and I really liked was Patriot, which I see got a 91% on Rotten Tomatoes, for what that’s worth (not much you say?). It’s funny throughout and gets better as it goes along. Unfortunately, only two seasons.