Here we are in the early days of World War III, and television — the part of it that is actually made up, as opposed to the part that is merely unbelievable — is crawling with spies and spooks and secret agents. In three new series (The Agency, Alias and 24, which doesn’t premiere until next month), the CIA figures centrally; another two (UC: Undercover and Thieves) involve federal agencies and undercover work. The arrival of these shows, on each of the four major networks, at exactly this time of crisis — almost as if in response to it, though naturally planned long before — suggests that we have been unsettled for a while, suggests that, somewhere not so deep in the American collective unconscious, we were already preparing for the new war paradigm, for a psychological state of siege. It is true in any case that the CIA has been staging an assault of its own, a campaign for the hearts and minds of the American mediated public; in 1996 they installed as a liaison to the entertainment industry former field-op Chase Brandon (name not made up, merely unbelievable), whose mission is to raise the profile of the agency — in a good way — to get the people picturing spies and spooks and secret agents as thoughtful citizens and patriotic team players, with full emotional lives, dynamite clothes sense, really nice hair (mostly), and a pretty high success rate. Michael Frost Beckner, who created The Agency, hung out with Brandon and visited CIA headquarters while preparing the pilot. “I made some comments and he made some changes,” Brandon told The Guardian.
It is strange that just as the CIA was ready for its Hollywood close-up, real life — and what one might call the largest intelligence failure in history — thrust it awkwardly into a different sort of spotlight. Of course, even as we acknowledge their failures, hypocrisies and crimes, we want to believe that our spooks and spies and secret agents will keep the forces of evil and the gnats of annoyance quiet and out of our way. “It’s time to give the intelligence agencies the money and the manpower they need,” said Alison Janney as fictional White House press secretary C.J. Cregg on The West Wing’s hastily assembled terrorist special. In fact, interest in the field was already up well before September 11: Campus recruiters who in olden days would have been chased off by the hippies and the Yippies with their flowers and their slogans and their signs have been reportedly getting a warm welcome and a gratifying response.
But of course, we love our spies, even if we hate the CIA, which is allowable and even encouraged. Whose blood does not thrill to the words, “Bond, James Bond”? The spy is the cleverer, more agile, independent version of the soldier, a private eye with cooler stuff. It’s a commonplace of the genre that he, and increasingly she, does not follow orders, is the affectionate bane of exasperated superiors, but always gets the job done, through improvisation, wit, physical grace and an utter disregard for collateral damage. Back in the ’60s, where I come from, it was all about the espionage. And the TV, which is the mirror of all things, reflected it: There were not only I Spy and Secret Agent and Mission: Impossible and The Avengers and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and The Girl From U.N.C.L.E., but also The Wild Wild West and The Prisoner and even Get Smart — not to mention Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp — and more, many more that I won’t embarrass myself by publicly recalling, from memory. Most are piffle, but the best are among the best shows ever to have been on television.
It’s too soon to say whether a classic lurks among this new crop. The more “serious” shows — The Agency and UC: Undercover — are the less persuasive, while the nothing-on-their-mind comic-book graces of Alias and Thieves are utterly winning. (24, which I haven’t seen, has the novel twist of running in real-time — that’s to say, a day will pass over the course of the season — and is therefore a historic event regardless of its yet unrevealed quality.) The Agency, executive-produced (with Beckner, Shaun Cassidy and Gail Katz) by Wolfgang Petersen, the director of Das Boot and Air Force One, is the most “real” of these series: There’s some of that ripped-from-the-headlines plotting they favor over at Law & Order (anthrax was on the menu this week), some of the workplace soap operatics of The West Wing, an attempt to “understand,” in a very partial way, what spydom’s really about, and a few steps taken toward giving the characters “feelings.” (Will Patton, as a disheveled analyst, carries a lot of that weight.) But it’s pokey and a little dull, even when the suspense is turned on, and they make the mistake of making the Senate Oversight Committee seem naive and slightly villainous. The theme of the show so far seems to be: The CIA tells lies, but they do it for you.
UC: Undercover, which follows an elite team of Justice Department crime fighters, presents that bad combination of taking itself very seriously while being at the same time neither believable nor, you know, good. Like Homicide: Life on the Street, whose Jon Seda stars here, it wants to get under the skin of its essentially screwed-up crew, to paint the stress of a life of deception, though not all the wack emotional icing in the world can disguise the fact that this is just Mission: Impossible with the fun removed. As Martin Landau was with lovely Barbara Bain, Seda is paired with lovely Vera Farmiga — each is a Master of Disguise! (A wig here, a gold tooth there . . . ) Oded Fehr is the Peter Graves steely-leader character; gadget-making Jarrad Paul takes the Greg Morris “electronics expert” part; and psychological profiler Bruklin Harris is what we get instead of strongman Peter Lupus, and you can call that progress.
Thieves presents Full House veteran John Stamos and Melissa George as good-looking, forever-bantering, quirky, charming, independent, opposites-attract criminals working, in a kind of heavy-duty community service arrangement, for something called the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Return of Stolen and Missing Government Property — they steal back stolen government property. (You may recall a little show called It Takes a Thief that rested upon a like foundation.) It’s a romantic comedy, essentially, with plenty of well-staged action (for which the banter does not stop) of the funny-scary variety, and good attention paid to secondary characters and those just passing through. I could do with a third fewer sex jokes — that will still leave plenty, believe me — but I could watch this anytime and be absolutely happy.
Alias is potentially the best of these shows, not because it’s in any sense deep, or even particularly plausible — it’s closer in spirit to The X-Files than it is to The Agency — but because it so effectively sets a mood, keeps you guessing about its characters, and makes you care about them a little, and because broad-shouldered, long-legged star Jennifer Garner is really really good at those spinning kicks that are this era’s karate chop. (Women are the only ones who can get away with kicking ass anymore — in Thieves, it’s Melissa George who’s the tough one.) Garner leads a triple life as a grad student, a globe-trotting agent for the supersecret SD-6, and a double agent for the CIA reporting on the supersecret SD-6, which she had until the beginning of this series assumed was the CIA, but are not. They are bad. The CIA is good. She’s a little confused, naturally, and so am I, but frankly, as with The X-Files, it helps to be slightly confused: It’s atmosphere and action you want from a show like this, not explanations; explanations just lead to endings. Creator J.J. Abrams also created Felicity, and when not busy saving the world, Garner leads a Felicity life among other handsome young people, including torch-carrying nosy journalist Bradley Cooper. One also awaits some sort of frisson with CIA pal Michael Vartan, who played Lancelot in The Mists of Avalon — they’re not going to let that meat go to waste. It’s Ben and Noah all over again, but with an occasional atom bomb for Garner to defuse. God help her getting her thesis done anytime soon.