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Maybe Better Than The Real Thing

Sunday, March 25, 2007

By: Sarah Powell

Okay, I’ll come out and say it. I love all things British. I love British accents. I am a complete anglo-phile, and my England includes the BBC. It’s not that I indiscriminately applaud everything the Brits do on telly and on the radio, but chances are, if they try at something, they are way more likely to succeed than their North American counterparts. Not that that’s saying much. Be it historical, dramatic, or goofy fun (a.k.a. Doctor Who), the BBC just knows what it’s doing.

Someone once asked “Do the BBC hate television?” This was both a very funny, and startlingly insightful remark. The BBC are verybbc_logo.gif well known for beginning a fresh, well written, well acted, popular show, only offering up 6 episodes a series (their equivalent of our season), and cancelling it after only two years. It seems a bit funny to us across the pond, who have grown accustomed to 22 episodes a year and can usually count on a popular show lasting around 7 years. So while this seems to demonstrate the BBC’s apparent disinterest in what the public actually wants to see, I think it actually affords them luxuries that the North American stations don’t have.

Take Lost for instance. Here it is, in its third season, and I’ve just gotten so frustrated with it, I’ve given up. J.J. Abrams and his crew, albeit a set of brilliant show creators, have been so stingy with bona fide plot development that they’ve alienated me. If they, on the other hand, weren’t pretty much guaranteed several more years of dragging out the mysteries, they would have to deliver on every single episode. No more of these cliffhangers every week that never really get satisfactorily resolved. The show writers would have to deal with everything they introduced in a quick-paced, suspenseful manner.

Which brings me to the real meat of my post: MI-5 (or Spooks, as it’s known over there). Our local library has granted me the opportunity of watching it on DVD, at no cost (except the overdue fines when I forget to take them back), but I would still seriously consider buying the whole thing once I’m done. The show revolves around a small group of people working within MI-5, and their struggles against the criminal underbelly of the UK, against the interference of MI-6, and against the strong-arm tactics of the CIA. It picks up where Sandbaggers left off (another BBC show worth a good watch, from the 70s, this time set in MI-6). The episode plot lines are tight, and while everything is not all neatly tied up with a bow at the end of 60 minutes, it leaves you feeling like you’ve had a complete experience.

300peter_firth.jpgThe cast is populated with relative unknowns. Peter Firth (a virtual doppelganger for Stellan Skarsgård), leads the team as Harrymatthew-macfadyen.jpg Pearce. His immediate subordinates, Tom Quinn (Matthew Macfadyen), and Tessa Philips (Jenny Agutter), are in turn responsible for the daily activities of the office. If you do happen to peruse the IMDB page for MI-5, don’t look to closely at the number of episodes each actor is in. The writers take full advantage of the typical shelf-life of a BBC drama, and do not hesitate to write in a high turnover of their cast. Which makes every episode a possible “last one” for each actor. And there are great advantages to be had for an espionage show that does not shy away from “neutralizing” one of its own.

There is a fine mixture of research, fieldwork, and technical gadgetry that never oversteps the line. There are no silly James Bond-esque heroics, or uber-cool, uber-impossible spy gear. Everything feels real. As well, they allow some of the personal life of the spies to creep into the show to develop the tension between an ordinary Londoner’s life and the demands put upon an agent who needs to keep his or her real identity close to their chest. And like any good spy show worth its salt, there are double-crossers, triple-crossers, and really bad baddies – most of whom eventually get their due.mi-5-dvd.jpg

I can’t say much more without spoiling things for you. Every episode really gets at you, though I do have a couple of personal favourites. Even those that you think you can see through to the endgame are fun to watch because they’re just so well done. I would recommend finding it on DVD (as opposed to waiting for A&E, or BBC Canada to show it again), but be sure to look for the North American title of MI-5, not Spooks, or you won’t find it. Count on wanting to watch three episodes a night – it’s hard to watch just one.


7 Comments leave one →
  1. Monday, March 26, 2007 7:37 am

    By a startling coincidence, I too thoroughly enjoyed MI5, and would say the only show even remotely like it in the US is 24.

    But 24, for as entertaining as it is, seems absolutely tame in comparison to the stuff that goes on in MI5. And somehow watching ten episodes of MI5 doesn’t feel like as big of a waste of time as watching 24 episodes of 24.

  2. James17930 permalink
    Monday, March 26, 2007 8:39 am

    Beal’s going to slaughter you for that comment g-boy.

    When did I ask if the BBC hated television? I can’t remember.

  3. Sarah P permalink
    Monday, March 26, 2007 12:22 pm

    I’ll admit, the comment was made a while ago, but it was such a good one, I thought I’d use it.

  4. Sarah P permalink
    Monday, March 26, 2007 12:23 pm

    And for the record, if Beal wants to slaughter anyone, it should be me. I did not enjoy 24 at all – we only saw the first season, and it was enough to turn me off.

  5. James17930 permalink
    Monday, March 26, 2007 3:19 pm

    Well, the first season was pretty bad. It gets a lot better later on.

  6. Monday, March 26, 2007 8:07 pm

    Blood… boiling…

  7. Wednesday, April 30, 2008 6:36 pm

    Just watched the first two episodes, and I have to say, I don’t really see it. It wasn’t bad by any stretch, but it all felt really done before.

    There was nothing about the plots that felt especially interesting, but the villains — a cabal of abortionist-killers lead by a brutally-accented American southern belle and a solidly menacing Brit looking to start a race war — were refreshingly non-world-domination-seeking, though perhaps a bit too obviously hot-button. The whole dual-lives thing the hero guy has going on is nothing new, though it’s a solid enough standard that there’s always potential in it. The hyper-camera visuals, of the kind CSI didn’t invent but uses the bejeezus out of, have never really appealed to me anyway. And the dialogue is heavy with cliched cleverness and not-especially-funny one-liners.

    And I think shows like 24, Lost, The Wire, and to a lesser extent Alias and even The X-Files, have spoiled the awe of a show being willing to off a major character — 24, starting it’s 7th season in 2009 (having skipped 2008 altogether) has seen exactly one of its season one characters return every year, and on 24, when a character leaves, typically it isn’t out the happy ending door. That said, I’m all for a show being willing to put an end to its people willy-nilly, even if the novelty of the concept is no longer there. (And I don’t know how many of the originals are still there, but MI-5/Spooks is starting season — I’m sorry, series — 7 in October, so there goes that theory of BBC brevity.)

    Anyway, I don’t think I’ll be getting the second disc any time soon, but maybe, maybe I’d give it a try again in the future. Perhaps the show gets better as you go along; if so, it wouldn’t be the first. And when spy shit gets good, it’s a blast.

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