“I Spy With My Little Eye...” part two – Spies of the Small Screen

In my last entry, I talked about great spy movies. But, of course, the big screen isn’t the only one with espionage agents that thrill us. Television has its own history of shows featuring spies. And the series run from very serious and secretive to shows with a light touch – and even some in between.

Among the series with a dramatic take on secret agents is Mission: Impossible. Even as a kid watching on a black-and-white TV, I was fascinated by the undercover operations carried out by the specialized Impossible Missions Force. And while our usual image of the British spy is James Bond, we’ve also been treated to a very different kind of agent in the form of George Smiley, played by Alec Guinness in the mini-series Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley’s People. While these British shows are played out during the Cold War, the more recent series MI-5 gives us a look at the dangerous missions undertaken by agents in the 21st century.

Of course television has also given us spies that are funny – or at least shown in a less-than-serious way. For out-and-out silliness, nothing can top Get Smart. Don Adams and Barbara Feldon starred in this classic sitcom about fumbling secret agent Max Smart and 99, his sharper, more serious, nameless partner. The Man from U.N.C.L.E., starring Robert Vaughn and David McCallum, also brought a very light touch to the spy genre. British import The Avengers gave us John Steed (Patrick Macnee), a secret agent, and his various partners. Mrs. Emma Peel (Diana Rigg), who was an accomplished and talented amateur, is the best known. But Steed also worked with Cathy Gale (Honor Blackman) and Tara King (Linda Thorson).
I Spy, starring Robert Culp and Bill Cosby, fell somewhere between drama and comedy. While our heroes dealt with undercover missions and faced real danger, their camaraderie gave the show a nice balance of lighter moments. It was a series that broke the mold, not only in its storylines but also by being the first dramatic American series to feature an African-American in a lead role.

But what about ex-spies? The Prisoner presented a frightening, surreal look at what happens when one particular British agent quits and tries to walk away. Patrick McGoohan starred in this classic series of a man trapped in The Village, a place not as nice as it seems. The current series Burn Notice gives us a very different scenario, as spy Michael Westen (Jeffrey Donovan) is kicked out of the agency and left in Miami to fend for himself, without identification or funds. Lucky for him he has friends like Fiona (Gabrielle Anwar) and Axe (Bruce Campbell) – and, of course, his mom Madeline (Sharon Gless). And Michael can use his talents to help others. Pretty cool hero.

There’s nothing like a good, intriguing spy story to draw you in and make you question everything. That mystery is part of the appeal. So enjoy! (And bonus points for anyone who can tell me what U.N.C.L.E. stands for…)