The TV Spy Game: Which One is YOUR Favorite? - Give Me My Remote : Give Me My Remote

The TV Spy Game: Which One is YOUR Favorite?

September 20, 2010 by  

Editor’s Note: As the primetime TV landscape becomes crowded with programs centered around secret agents and clandestine missions, GMMR reader Lou W. Sytsma offered this take on the state of spy shows. Great thanks to Lou for submitting such a thought-provoking piece!

What is your all-time favorite espionage show? With choices like I Spy, Man From U.N.C.L.E., Get Smart, Mission Impossible, La Femme Nikita, and Alias to choose from, it is a difficult question to answer.

Spy shows often stand as counter programming to the more grounded cop shows. Police shows, within the dramatic sandbox that TV shows exist in, play things straight and are bound by the laws of the land. Spy shows invariably go for a more fantastical approach, ignoring or bending those structural conventions. That’s where the fun comes in…

This year, a surplus of spy programs are competing for audiences, specifically looking to attract viewers who have grown weary of traditional procedurals like the Law & Order and CSI franchises. In order to determine which show accomplishes that mission, let’s take a look at the contenders.

Chuck has walked the tightrope of cancellation since Season 1. The show’s mix of comedy, action, and romance, along with an ensemble cast that oozes chemistry, makes it one of primetime’s most purely entertaining hours. Zachary Levi & Yvonne Strahovski are one of TV’s most charming and attractive onscreen couples, and Levi works tirelessly to promote the show through traditional media and online outlets. However, Chuck’s blistering competition on Monday nights (including HOUSE and DANCING WITH THE STARS), along with its nerd-friendly pop culture references, has limited its popularity among a large, mainstream audience.

To their credit, Chuck’s creative team has directly appealed to new viewers by “rebooting” the central storyline each season. For a serialized program, this has been a risky strategy. Yet, it provides maximum accessibility for new viewers while maintaining the integrity of the show for loyal fans.

The creative team has tried to draw in new viewers by essentially rebooting the story at the beginning (or should I say the end) of every season. For a serialized show, it was a risky move, but one that allowed for story accessibility for new viewers while keep existing fans. If there was ever a show that is easy to jump into midstream, Chuck is the one.

In Season 4, we know Chuck will not start out as a spy, honoring a promise made to his sister Ellie. Chuck must find a way to keep that promise while simultaneously searching for his long-lost mother, to be played by Terminator veteran Linda Hamilton. The most intriguing development is the government’s taking control of the BuyMore turning it into a CIA training base which will make the electronics store relevant to storylines once more. It also provides a built in method of incorporating guest stars into the show with a reusable storyline and a reusable name – say hello to Greta everyone!

Burn Notice is a slick show. Quick paced, snappy dialogue, often explosive action bits, and interlaced with sprinklings of character beats. The program is at its most entertaining during lead character Michael Weston’s voiceovers, waxing poetic about his past while fabricating weapons, explosives, and other spy-friendly accessories. Add in a top-notch cast, including cult favorite Bruce Campbell, Gabrielle Anwar, and Sharon Gless, and it is no wonder that USA’s most underrated hit has already been renewed for two more seasons!

Judging by this season, I fear that Burn Notice is in a rut. Too many episodes are self-contained, lacking any connection to the show’s central storyline. Michael’s “burn notice,” and his quest to clear his name, has all but vanished as a plot point. Adding Coby Bell to the cast as Jesse Porter, a spy once burned by Michael Weston himself, has brought mixed results. The concept of having Michael burn another spy while trying to reclaim his own life is clever storytelling. However, the Jesse story arc could easily have been dealt with in a matter of weeks. Instead, Jesse has become a member of the ensemble, diluting the time spent with the show’s core trio.

Burn Notice has a solid fan base and USA’s enthusiastic support, but the show could use a creative shot in the arm going forward.

Doug Liman, director of The Bourne Identity, knows a little something about characters with double lives. As the creative force behind USA’s Covert Affairs, Liman hopes to duplicate that success on the small screen. Though the show recently completed its first season, the core characters and central storylines are worth a quick review.

Informed by the post-9/11 mindset of the Intelligence community, Covert Affairs details the exploits of CIA trainee Annie Walker (Piper Perabo). Annie is assigned to a blind mentor, Auggie Anderson (Chris Gorham from Ugly Betty & Jake 2.0). The show’s cast is rounded out by veteran actors Peter Gallagher and Kari Matchett as Annie’s married supervisors, Arthur & Joan Campbell, as well as HOUSE alumni Anne Dudek as Annie’s older sister Danielle.

Based on the show’s first batch of episodes, Covert Affairs has proved itself to NOT be an Alias clone. Annie is learning the ropes of being a spy while juggling her personal life. Ex-boyfriend Ben Mercer, played by Eion Bailey, appears to be connected to the spy world, but his significance has yet to be revealed. The office politics and interpersonal relationships, rather than detract from the spy stories featured on the show, actually add to the fun.

The addition of Heroes star Sendil Ramamurthy as Jai Wilcox, son of the ex-CIA Department Head also added to the intrigue. Jai is assigned by Peter Campbell to keep an eye on Annie, who reports to Joan Campbell, because of her former involvement with rogue operative Ben Mercer Jai also provides another distraction for Annie on the personal front.

Where the show really shines is when Auggie and Annie are together. Given Auggie’s inability to be in the field it will be interesting to see how the series works its storylines to provide plausible reasons for the two to be together professionally.

I am totally shipping on Annie and Auggie getting together!

Spies? Assassins? Close enough, right? The character of Nikita is reborn after the 1990 French film Nikita and the 1997 television series, La Femme Nikita. This version has an ace in their sleeve with Maggie Q (Margaret Denise Quigley) cast in the titular role. She rose to prominence in Mission Impossible III and Die Hard 4. In a nod to her experience in action movies, Maggie Q will perform her own stunts. The CW loves strong female characters and Nikita/Maggie Q fit the bill.

In this incarnation, the story begins six years in the past. A covert organization known as the Division rescues Nikita from death row. They fake her execution and force her to become an assassin. The Division then betrays Nikita. Left with nothing, she is out for revenge and turns rogue. Nikita makes it her new mission to bring down the Division and free her fellow recruits.

Based on early clips and other reports, Nikita 3.0 appears to maintain the dark tone of the movie and the earlier TV series. Nikita is a damaged character living in a world of little compassion and abundant violence. The series’ success will rest on how well the writers can humanize the character and enable the audience to empathize with her.

Despite the obvious attention garnered with the snagging of Maggie Q in the title role this one is coming from such a dark place that getting audience buy in could be tough. Can this incarnation of Nikita do so? The CW is banking on its female star to make it happen. This one has me intrigued.

J.J. Abrams is Hollywood’s hottest producer/director. With Alias, Mission Impossible III, Lost, and the Star Trek reboot on Abrams’ resume, this latest series from the Bad Robot chief is NBC’s heavy favorite to break big.

Undercovers takes a slightly different spin on things, since the two leads are ex-spies. Steve (Borish Kodjoe) and Samantha (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) Bloom met as field agents, fell in love, mutually agreed to quit, marrried, and settled down to a civilian life running a catering service. As time goes by, both begin to feel restless when normal life does not provide the ‘kick’ that they got while on missions.

Steve and Samantha make a beautiful couple. When an old colleague is captured, both entertain thoughts of coming out of retirement to rescue him. The program will follow their re-entry into the spy world and explore how their relationship is rejuvenated by mixing business with pleasure again. With a nod towards the Mr. and Mrs. Smith dynamic, episodes of Undercovers will be stand alone in nature, limiting the demands on their audience to follow intricate storylines.

With an attractive cast, and a new spin on an old story, Undercovers is poised to build a large audience. However, in the absence of a “big picture” story arc, the chemistry between Kodjoe & Mbatha-Raw will be paramount in keeping viewers along for the ride.

Are you down with the trickery, intrigue and fun that comes with these spy shows? What makes them so likable? What’s your favorite spy show of all time?


7 Responses to “The TV Spy Game: Which One is YOUR Favorite?”

  1. Mary @ Giving Up on Perfect on September 20th, 2010 10:02 am

    Thanks for a fun look at the current spies on TV! My favorite is definitely Chuck, but I’m a long-time fan of Burn Notice and really enjoyed Covert Affairs.

  2. ... on September 20th, 2010 2:54 pm

    Nikita all the way. It’s dark, sexy, intriguing, and a total surprise in terms of quality.

  3. Kim on September 20th, 2010 4:33 pm

    I’d have to say Chuck is my favorite. But I absolutely love Burn Notice too! I also really like Covert Affairs. I haven’t wanted Nikita yet. Both episodes are still on my DVR. I’m looking forward to Undercovers though!

  4. Kristin on September 20th, 2010 6:26 pm

    Totally shipping on Annie and Auggie for next season! They would be adorable, and probably fill my Syd/vaughn void that has been gaping for a long time!

  5. Canakatydid on September 20th, 2010 6:47 pm

    Though I’m enjoying Burn Notice, which has just started in Toronto!

  6. hiswings on September 20th, 2010 9:56 pm

    Definitely Chuck – although I am enjoying White Collar and Covert Affairs too. Have only watched the Pilot of Nikita and it looks to be promising – but CHUCK owns my heart!!

  7. nikita12 on October 21st, 2010 10:13 pm

    i love nikita very much she is pretty hot!!!