Saturday, November 11, 2023

Best Espionage/Spy/Thriller TV and Movies

Spy and espionage TV and film arose from real and fictional stories and literature. Even in biblical times, the Book of Joshua tells the story of how General Joshua had spies assist him taking Jericho with the help of Rabat the Harlot. Wherever politics and warfare meet, there is the need for intelligence by the opposing parties.

Literature for centuries has has rousing spy and intelligence stories. Even Sherlock Holmes had a few cases that leaned from mystery to espionage. I can't remember the very first book I read that featured a spy story. Chances are it was probably a World War 2 book by Ken Follet or Len Deighton. But it might have been The Three Musketeers or Sherlock Holmes as well. Truth be told though, it could very well be a 1967 Hardy Boys book that featured a secret agent that might have been the first spy book I read. I was reading Hardy Boys by 1970 at around 5 and 6 years old. I remember in 1971 taking out a small book on the Battle of Britain from the tiny school library at Sir John Franklin and being struck by the hints of how intelligence was gathered by radar and spotters on the ground.

By 1971, when cable arrived at house how on Kingsway, I started to see all kinds of stuff, especially by 1974 when CKND came on the air with movies from all over the place including James Bond. There were even more when PBS arrived on the dial in 1975. PBS for a time aired Hollywood movies such  Where Eagles Dare with Clint Eastwood and Richard Burton which was an action/espionage movie that revealed its spy traitor in the very last scene.
Leave it to the British to have both the action superhero spy like James Bond and behind the scenes anti-hero spy like George Smiley. Tinker, Tailor , Soldier, Spy was PBS's highbrow answer to Bond and showed John Le Carre's complicated Smiley without gadgets or gimmickry.

The Americans in terms of television went with spy comedy and Get Smart, A Man from U.N.CL.E., Scarecrow and Mrs. King and Chuck.  Archer, the animated agent series has been running longer than most series have and still finding success. 

In terms of spy movie comedies, Mr. And Mrs. Smith still entertains. True Lies with Jamie Lee Curtis and Arnie is amazing. And while Austin Powers is about a British spy played by Canadian Michael Myers and produced by an American studio, it is a splendid send up James Bond done with the fondest of hearts.

Canada has had a few spy series such as Intelligence, The Romeo Section, The Border and X Company. Canadian spy series tend to be more dramatic and and cover fictional spy agencies. Pretty much nothing on the RCMP. It is surprisingly how little fiction or TV and film are done on the force. Due South was more than 30 years ago. When Calls the Heart featured a Mountie but it is an American series and the character was subsequently written off. It seems a lost opportunity for Canada with such a world famous force in terms of police or intelligence series.

One outrageously entertaining series of agents in Canada was Once A Thief created by John Woo. We do an enormous amount of sci-fi in Canada that have spy and agent-like storylines. Often corporate forces are a foe. Orphan Black is such a show. But it bends and blurs the spy genre. And that is a good thing. Fiction can try and pigeon-hole genre. Original storytelling has created horror comedy, bromance thriller and so on. Canada tends to make the geography and foes generic or more American/European to sell to international audiences. And Canada has done that very well over the years to the detriment of telling Canadian stories. It is a shame because often Canadian stories reach audiences and receive accolades if they are allowed to be told.
In the 1980s I enjoyed the Tom Clancy books for their mix of technical, action and espionage. Even now the hero of those books Jack Ryan is still fodder for movies and TV series. The most recent one starring John Krasinky just ending this year. There are several series that feature espionage in a military setting. Much of the Tom Clancy based stuff is about CIA but they are always working with the military. 

There is a distinct difference between U.S. network spy shows and cable spy shows. The series 24 starring Kiefer Sutherland was a frenzy of action in real time and 24 episodes of intensity. It was not a slow burn in the least. A cable show like Homeland is not devoid of action but it builds slower to its conclusion. What both series feature though are strong stars that can carry every episode. Claire Danes was a few Emmy Awards for her performance in the series. Kiefer Sutherland was nominated many times before winning the Emmy.

Some spy movies and TV series I was late to discover. They simply aired before I was old enough to watch in many cases. Plenty of times they never aired at all after their original airing. I never got to Special Branch or The Sandbaggers from the 1970s although, evidently, Sandbaggers did air on CBC at some point. It was probably some late show. People forget that pretty much all TV went off the air sometime around midnight or not much thereafter. A British series comedy or drama was well suited for after the 11:30 local news.

Special Branch came in two parts in Britain. The first black and white starting in 1969 and then with a whole new cast in colour running till 1974. It was about the branch of the police tasked with working with interior intelligence service MI5 in the arrest of spies, protection of citizens and diplomats and related police work related to national security. Not brimming with action but with intelligent stories, it shed light in an area largely not understood by British or anyone else in the world of espionage. 
Special Branch and The Sandbaggers were definitely not James Bond. Characters on Sandbaggers would often reference Bond and how they were not like him. And they weren't. Still, it was interesting to see this see saw view on spies from The Saint, The Avengers, Danger Man and The Prisoner contrasts with harder and more realistic spy/agent series.

Some of the most inventive spy series in the U.S. are a mix of humour, action and crazy story lines. Women had leading roles in some in the early 2000s in shows like Alias and the produced in Canada La Femme Nikita. Jennifer Garner and Peta Wilson had huge responsibilities in carrying their series and they were outstanding in carrying their roles out. Many incredible actors did fine work on La Femme Nikita. And on Alias, another Canadian actor Victor Garber had a strong role as the father and agent of Sydney Bristow played by Jennifer Garner.
The British have done some great MI5 series including the series named MI-5 (Spooks in Britain). Killing Eve and Slow Horses are some recent outstanding series covering the internal security service of Britain. The Game is also good as a series on MI-5 but is hard to find. 

A number of international countries have done spy and agent series. Poland, Norway and Israel have all done impressive work. I enjoyed the Norwegian series Occupied a lot. The 1983 series from Poland was solid. And Israel was the originator of the Homeland series. The French spy series The Bureau was brilliant. I've seen some good series from Korea as well.

On U.S. TV, Seal Team has the team working with the CIA and on intelligence missions and is a staple of action spy series. They are very expensive to shoot as you can imagine. Not all spy series need that type of money and action to be gripping.

As writers and actors strike wraps up, we will see a return to scripted programming in the new year. Network TV tends to have dramas that fall into police, medical and more rarely soap-like shows. Spy, science fiction and general mysteries generally are regulated to cable, PBS or streaming. 

I can't say what my favourites are in the spy genre. I love a good James Bond as much as a Mission Impossible as much a Tinker, Tailor. I have watched recently some of the old series such as Special Branch with enjoyment. Looks forward to new shows as they come in the the new year.

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