We watch... so you don't have to.

Get Your Spy On

Ah, January. The start of a new year full of hope and possibilities (or, if you’re a Democrat, dread and foreboding). January is a time to reflect on the year behind us, imagine the year ahead of us, and infiltrate the Red Division’s secret base to recover those all-important plans for the Kandinsky Device.

OK, maybe not that last part—but you’d never know it from the TV listings. After an autumn full of mysterious castaways and desperate housewives prone to towel malfunctions, television is suddenly packed once again with spies and secret agents as three old favorite series return to the airways. One is better than ever, one’s getting back to its former glory, and… well… the other one is 24.

If any of you out there are expecting another edition of my annual 24 Misogyny Watch come May, prepare for disappointment. After three years of gravelly-voiced threats and stuff blowin’ up good, I think I’m finally done with the Jack Bauer Hour of Power. The first four hours of the season showed me absolutely nothing I hadn’t seen a zillion times before in the first three seasons. Dissent at CTU! Shifty Arab terrorists! Jack talking on a cellphone while driving a big honking SUV! Gosh, the novelty is just zzzzzzzzz. Worse yet, after a fairly subdued third year, at least by 24 standards, the series seems to sport a renewed dedication to maligning the womenfolk. Day Four’s hardly begun, and already we have:

- A steely, arrogant bosslady who makes bad calls for selfish reasons, and neglects her heavily medicated, schizophrenic wreck of a daughter. (Not to sound callous, but I can practically smell the impending suicide in that plotline.)

- A spiritual successor to Carrie the Evil One, Season Two’s hateful exemplar of all things awful, in the form of a CTU member who’s snooping, spying and scheming, apparently to get back at the fellow agent who dumped her.

- Yet another icy matriarch—played by Oscar nominee Shoresh Agdashloo, no less—cold-bloodedly poisoning her son’s teenage girlfriend.

- A full-grown woman cowering behind her silver-haired, aging dad as he grabs a Kalashnikov and Rambos his way out of terrorist captivity.

Uh, yeah, guys. You go do that. Me, I’ll be watching something else. Like A&E and the BBC’s outstanding MI-5, 24’s distant British cousin, which has returned from an eighteen-month hiatus leaner, darker and more compelling than ever. A welcome infusion of American production money has allowed the show to stage some terrific action set pieces, and the writing and acting remain top-notch. There’s a palpable sense of menace in the way these cagey spooks conduct their business. Living under false names, ensuring silence and cooperation with almost Orwellian efficiency, MI-5’s spies have to fill out forms and get official clearance just to start dating civilians.

Agents Tom, Zoe, Danny, Harry and Adam are good people at the core, and not without conscience. What makes them scary is how they ignore and repress that conscience to make sure the job gets done. If you cross them, you’re not just screwed—you’re so far past screwed, you can’t even see it with a telescope. And even if you cooperate with them—even if you’re completely innocent—you’re almost certain to suffer in the end. Their world is a corrosive one, destroying or corrupting everything it touches, and that makes for refreshingly bleak and bracing television.

And unlike 24, where Jack Bauer can have a heart attack and a drug habit and about five distinct illegal mutinies and still not be imprisoned or dead, MI-5 allows the pressures of the job to have permanent consequences on its characters. As of the second episode of the season, the show’s hero Tom Quinn (Matthew MacFayden) is apparently gone for good. After years of unflinching deception, his conscience overtakes him, and he suffers a complete, career-destroying meltdown. Though Tom leaves the show with his head held high, the writers make it clear he’s neither a well man nor a happy one.

Terrific as it is, MI-5 can be heavy stuff. For those who like their spying light and frothy, J.J. Abrams’ revitalized Alias will doubtlessly hit the spot. After a mostly dull and depressing third season, the adventures of girl-next-door superspy Sydney Bristow (the suddenly ubiquitous Jennifer Garner) have sacrificed a certain amount of plausibility in exchange for a significant and much-need infusion of pure fun.

Syd working as a super-secret agent, unhindered by protocol? Check. A return to the contrast between her daring undercover exploits and her charmingly ordinary life outside the agency? Check. Operations run by marvelously malevolent ex-criminal mastermind Arvin Sloane (Ron Rifkin)? Ridiculously unlikely, but oh so much fun. Syd’s dad Jack (Victor Garber) is back to his astoundingly badass ways; his manipulations of Sydney and her friends make him less sympathetic, but the cracks in his icy facade, and the aching loneliness that’s beginning to show through, balance that quite nicely. And though Syd’s evil mom is out of the show with a bullet, thanks to Lena Olin’s ridiculous salary demands, the producers promise return appearances from other old favorites like Will Tippin (Bradley Cooper), the dastardly Julian Sark (David Anders), and femme fatale Anna Espinosa (Gina Torres).

Still, there’s a whiff of “greatest hits” about Alias’s revamped direction. It’s good that Abrams and his writers, including several top-notch Joss Whedon vets, are bringing back some of the things that made the show great in the first place. But at least thus far, Alias is still missing the weird, spine-tingly edge of novelty it used to have. (It seems to have migrated over to Lost, which remains as eerie and compelling as ever. Perhaps some artifacts from Alias’s Renaissance-era superscientist Milo Rambaldi will start dropping from the palm trees?) Bringing back the best of the old has helped Alias regain its footing. If it really wants to take off running, though, it’s going to have to start bringing in the new as well.


TeeVee - About Us - Archive - Where We Are Now

Got a comment? Mail us at teevee@teevee.org.

* * *