I’m always on the lookout for something fresh and interesting in the world of TV spies, and given the plethora of new shows that are cycled out on a regular basis—and the ease with which I get suckered into cloak-and-dagger narratives—you’d think I would have a long list of favorite spy shows at my fingertips. I don’t.
Truth is, a really good spy show (or film) is a balancing act. Originality, fleshed-out characters, suspense, and unpredictability must come together in a perfect storm of dramatic story. Humor sometimes helps, but not so much that it undermines the gravity of the situation. There should be at least a nod toward realism—if not, it had better make up for this in other areas.
What measures up? Well, here are four TV series that I consider the cream-of-the-cream-of-the-crop. They are, in my eyes, the very best that television has produced in the espionage genre. These shows have stuck with me for years, and I still return to them, sometimes finding inspiration but always finding enjoyment. And while I am neither of these things, it helps to know that all four are rather old and rather British.
I’m leaving out some great shows that, had I more space, I would happily discuss. But primarily they’re left out because everyone already knows how great they are. Consider them runners-up:
The Avengers (1961-69)
I Spy (1965-68)
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1979)
Smiley’s People (1982)
With that out of the way...
Danger Man / Secret Agent (1960-62; 1964-68)
The inimitable Patrick McGoohan (American-born, Irish- and English-raised) was, once upon a time, the UK’s highest paid television actor, due to the success of this show. Yet when it initially appeared as a half-hour serial in 1960, two years before the first Bond film, the numbers weren’t great, and it lasted only one season. In it, McGoohan played John Drake, a secret agent for NATO, flying around the planet to put out various international and diplomatic brushfires. Very cool, but after 39 episodes it was cancelled.
Between incarnations of the show, McGoohan turned down two significant job offers: those of James Bond (before it was offered to Sean Connery) and Simon Templar from The Saint (before that went to Roger Moore). In both cases, McGoohan’s Catholicism led him to refuse on moral grounds.
After the huge success of Dr. No, the producers approached McGoohan to revive Danger Man in an hour-long format. Luckily for all of us, he agreed, and returned to the role of John Drake in 1964. (The show was retitled Secret Agent for the American audience, with Johnny Rivers’s famous theme, “Secret Agent Man.”)
While the later series is essentially the same—John Drake globehopping to right wrongs—he now works for Britain’s fictional MI9. Most important, though, is the longer format: a full hour allowed the writers to flesh out situations and characters better than most shows of the time, and this no doubt helped lead to its great success.
So why is Danger Man awesome? Firstly, because of McGoohan. Not his acting—which, while terrific at times, can wobble here and there into the extremes—but because of the rules he laid down for the character. Despite the tradition of knock ’em, sock ’em action heroes, McGoohan’s John Drake is an anomaly. He doesn’t bed any women, and despite the many attractive actresses who float through the stories, flirtations are kept to a minimum. Just as importantly, he doesn’t carry a gun, and he reluctantly resorts to using his fists. He’s an intellectual spy, teasing out the truth with his brains rather than brawn. All this leads to what feels like an extremely progressive show, particularly considering that this is the Sixties.
Despite the lack of violence, Danger Man is always engaging. Again, this is McGoohan at work—he was a magnetic actor, and you can’t help but follow him around the screen. The writing is impeccable, too, always smart and emotional, weaving its way to an often unexpected climax.
Here’s the entire first half-hour episode, “View from the Villa”:
In fact, it looks like most if not all of the 30-minute episodes are available on YouTube. But if you can track them down, do yourself a favor and find the hour-long episodes. They do not disappoint.
The Prisoner (1967-68)
As Danger Man was winding down, McGoohan became absorbed by a new idea: The Prisoner. McGoohan had greater creative control this time around, and while he took a lot of the talent from the Danger Man crew, the result was something quite different.
Above I said that a good spy show needs a sense of realism and “not so much” humor—with The Prisoner, though, I have to toss my rulebook. This show breaks rules willy-nilly, yet it still keeps me (and legions of cult-like fans) utterly fascinated. If you don’t know The Prisoner, watch at least the opening of its first episode and then come back.
See what I mean? It’s weird. A spy quits his job and is knocked out with gas. He wakes up in “The Village” (in reality the Hotel Portmeirion in Penrhyndeudraeth, North Wales), a bizarre fascist mini-state-cum-retirement home full of ex-spies and spies spying on the ex-spies. He is no longer referred to by his name (in fact, we never once hear his real name, though some speculate that it is John Drake), but by his number: Number 6. Everyone has a number, leading up to Number 2, the ostensible leader of the The Village, who among other things has been tasked with finding out why Number 6 quit his job.
Who runs The Village? Are Number 6’s captors his own people, or some other government? Why did Number 6 resign? Who is Number 1—is there a Number 1? What the hell is going on? These questions run through what is probably the most surreal show ever to be produced for television (and, yes, I do know Twin Peaks). Metaphors and allegories abound, as do utterly unexpected moments. If you look around the Internet, you’ll find a cottage industry in Prisoner interpretation and fandom—once you make it through the series, you’ll understand why this is.
It is utterly original and, as long as you’re willing to surrender yourself to the experience, completely absorbing. It runs 17 episodes, chronicling Number 6’s efforts to escape and figure things out until, at the end, the entire world seems to collapse on itself in a frenzy of psychotherapeutic chaos. This is truly must-see TV.
One often gets the impression that television has become more realistic over time, and that drama has more latitude to delve into the dark side. Callan (as well as the next show) should put any such notion to rest. It lies on the bleak realism end of the entertainment spectrum as it follows Edward Woodward’s David Callan, a government hit man, as he wrestles with the morality so lacking in his profession.
There are light moments, mostly at the expense of his cowardly sidekick, the aptly named Lonely (Russell Hunter), but by and large the world of Callan makes Syriana look like Disneyland. Everything but everything is claustrophobic and cut-throat...and completely hypnotic. Double crosses abound, and hope is just a rarely used word. Watch it, but keep your razors locked away.
Originally, in 1967 Woodward played David Callan in “A Magnum for Schneider,” a one-shot drama for ABC and Thames TV based on the novel of the same name by James Mitchell. (As a side note: Knowing of my interest in the series, back in 2008 the staff at Uncle Edgar’s bookstore in Minneapolis presented me an original copy of the novel. Great folks, and terrific novel.) The success led ABC to order more episodes, eventually leading to color seasons.
These five monochrome minutes should give you an idea of what the show is like:
The Sandbaggers (1978-80)
Because of how different each show is, it would be hard for me to put this list in some qualitative order, or to choose one favorite, but at times (say, today) The Sandbaggers tops my list. Maybe it’s because its episodes feel so much like a 1970s John le Carré novel come to life. Maybe it’s for Roy Marsden’s intense, disapproving stare, which I know in my bones is the precursor to something ruthless.
Or maybe it’s because that realism I talked about earlier weighs so heavily on all the storylines in this series. Whatever it is, The Sandbaggers makes for incredible television.
It was a popular, BAFTA-winning show that ended only because its creator, Ian Mackintosh, disappeared while flying his single-engine plane across Canada. His body was never discovered, but he’s presumed to be dead.
The Sandbaggers is a different beast from most spy shows, focusing less on the foot soldiers of intelligence than its administrators. Much of the action takes place in drab London offices or men’s clubs, discussing operations we get occasional glimpses of.
The central character, Neil Burnside (Roy Marsden), runs the “sandbaggers,” a small group of agents sent in to do risky work, occasionally involving murder. He was once a sandbagger himself, and has great empathy for those under him, spending a lot of his time trying to get them out of jobs he deems too risky. Like a good le Carré novel, we’re constantly seeing the jobs from the top—from the decision makers’ perspectives, fraught with budget discussions and political rivalries—as well as from the bottom, going with the sandbaggers into missions that fail as often as they succeed. And things are complicated by the Americans, who help and hinder and sometimes get people killed along the way.
In this clip Burnside explains some intelligence philosophy to a foreign intelligence administrator.
There’s a mystique about the show’s realism that comes from one episode never being filmed because it would have violated the Official Secrets Act (Mackintosh had been in the employ of the British military). But spy shows don’t have to be real to be realistic, so that’s neither here nor there for me. All I know is that The Sandbaggers has some of the most intelligent writing I’ve seen on television, and seldom makes allowances for meek audiences—Burnside, despite his heavy conscience, continually shows himself to be one of the hardest characters on television, someone who’s easy to hate and is seldom redeemed by a “heart of gold.” Yet despite this you slowly grow to understand him and appreciate his efforts in the face of seemingly endless disappointments.
Here’s an atypically action-oriented scene, for those of you who want to see some guns:
The Sandbaggers is, by and large, pure genius, and I advise any fan of espionage who hasn’t seen it to remedy this situation posthaste.
I hope I’ve brought up one or two shows that are new to you, and for those upset I didn’t include Mission: Impossible (I don’t like it), Alias (I like it, but not enough to put it here), or Homeland (I don’t have HBO, so have only seen the first episode), apologies. If you’re one of the three existing fans wondering why I didn’t put Rubicon on the list, I thought about it, but while it started out great it didn’t keep up steam for me.
What do you think? Anything else that measures up to the cream-of-the-cream-of-the-crop? I’m always interested in finding new things to watch. Remember, I’ve seen a lot of spy TV in my time, so try and surprise me!
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Olen Steinhauer is the New York Times bestselling author of seven novels, including The Tourist, The Nearest Exit, and his newest, An American Spy. He is also a two-time Edgar Award finalist and has been shortlisted for the Anthony, the Macavity, the Ellis Peters Historical Dagger, the Ian Fleming Steel Dagger, and the Barry awards. Raised in Virginia, he lives in California.