A&E’s new series, MI-5 (first aired on the BBC as Spooks), takes an admirably understated approach to its depiction of the British domestic intelligence service. Unlike the martini-soaked, gadget-driven fantasy of the Bond franchise, MI-5 doesn’t induce the adrenaline rush familiar from watching Bond parachute off cliffs or ski down mountains. Instead, MI-5 offers a low-key ensemble that cracks mysteries in less than an hour, more in the style of CSI, but with less gore.
The spies on MI-5 are more Miss Marple than 007. A little dull, but compelling nonetheless. The series’ Stateside success might depend on whether or not viewers can understand this new breed of secret agent, or if most prefer their fictional spies to be hyper-sexualized, thoroughly outfitted with gadgets, and living constantly on the edge.
Most media representations of secret agents are romantic: they crack all cases, repeatedly save the world, and, like Alias‘s Sidney Bristow (Jennifer Garner), speak multiple languages, handle weapons with aplomb, and look as comfortable in spike heels and mini-dresses as in dark glasses and Armani suits. This despite the fact that recent investigations into September 11 suggest that real spies are bumbling and inept, unable to “connect the dots” or share the right information.
MI-5 takes a different tact. The spies of MI-5 are led by the decidedly unglamorous Tom Quinn (Matthew MacFayden). In his capacity as the head of the domestic equivalent to Bond’s MI-6 (which handles international threats and intrigues), Tom is dour and conflicted. An ongoing subplot concerns his relationship with his girlfriend Ellie (Esther Hall) and her daughter Maisie (Heather Cave) whom he met while undercover and who know him as “Matthew,” a lonely IT guy. Unlike Bond, whose spy identity works like an aphrodisiac to the ladies, Tom’s sex life is complicated precisely because of the multiple identities he must act out for his job.
Each week, the plot calls for Tom to abandon his girlfriend at crucial moments of emotional intimacy, placing strain on their relationship. And each week, after going off and completing his dangerous and top-secret mission, Tom responds by returning to Ellie and increasing his commitment. The third episode, “One Last Dance,” ends with Tom asking Ellie to move in with him, pushing them closer to the inevitably tense moment when he’ll be forced to reveal his “true identity.”
But even this conflict of dual identities can sometimes seem mundane (unlike a U.S. show such as Alias where such tension is often more dramatic than the episode’s main plot). Tom finds himself forced to watch his step when Maisie overhears him name Zoe (Keely Hawes) on a clandestine cell phone call. What could be used as a device to inject further tension into Tom and Ellie’s relationship comes to nothing. Not exactly high drama.
Despite MI-5‘s low-key tone, it’s not afraid to court controversy issues. “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” the first episode that aired on A&E, involved a plot to blow up abortion clinics led by a rabid American woman supplied with bombs by the IRA. The second episode, “Looking After Our Own,” centered on a complicated plan to incite a race war in Britain that leads to an undercover MI-5 agent being shoved into a deep fat fryer. The agents rely on their wits more than complicated stunts or over-the-top action sequences. It’s unlikely that a mainstream television program in the U.S. that would cast radical anti-abortionists as unapologetically evil or be so unflinching in the portrayal of anti-immigration racists.
In this way, the show seems quietly radical, exemplifying the differences between the cultural climates in the Labour-controlled U.K. and the United States. Blair and Bush might move in lockstep in their Iraq policy, but in the ideal universe of MI-5, Britain remains independent. And MI-5‘s popularity in the U.K. may be attributable to its attention to topical issues, without pandering to the ruling establishment or offering uncomplicated resolutions. The third episode sees Harry Pearce (Peter Firth) make a deal with a terrorist, letting him go free. The first episode concludes with the British government cheating on a supposed deal it cut with the anti-abortionist antagonist.
In U.S. television, bad acts are usually the province of rogue individuals, working outside official sanction. MI-5 portrays the agency and even the government as breaking the rules and acting in their own best interests, regardless of moral consequences. This approach has won the show a growing audience in Britain, with a second season currently airing on the BBC. Rather than the sexy flash of other spy franchises, it offers a slow burn.