I'm about to suffer from Tivo-overload -- my wife and I just managed to finish the "MI-5" marathon on A&E, and Tivo still has four (count 'em, *4*) hours of "24," not to mention it will pick up "The Amazing Race" tonight (and the trusty vcr will tape "Veronica Mars"), "Lost" and "Alias" tomorrow, two hours of "Battlestar Galactica" on Friday, and a new "MI-5" on Saturday. Whew! And next week, "American Idol 4" and "The Apprentice 3" debut. . . . Not sure when I'll get around to movies I've Tivo'd, like "Get Shorty," "And Then There Were None," and "Dr. Strangelove."
Anyway, I've been thinking about the five recent spy shows that I've enjoyed watching: "La Femme Nikita" (USA 1997-2001); "The Agency" (CBS 2001-03); "24" (Fox 2001-present); "Alias" (ABC 2001-present); and "MI-5" (BBC/A&E 2002-present). Interesting how three of them debuted shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks (though they must have been in production before then).
It may be a little unfair to lump them all together like this, since some are more realistic ("MI-5" and "The Agency") while others veer toward comic book status ("Alias"). Season 1 of "The Agency," in particular, was highly intelligent, showing the mental operations of the CIA much more than physical; in fact, other than Gil Bellow's character (Matt Callan), most of it took place behind the scenes.
All of the shows rely on the tried and true cliffhanger or shocker to end their seasons, and in this regard, I have to say that "Nikita" and "24" have had the best season enders. At the end of season 1 of "Nikita," the main character escapes from the ruthless anti-terrorism group Section One, only to be caught and tested at the beginning of season 2. At the end of the second season, she has a chance to expose Section One but is persuaded, for the moment, that ends do justify the means. And in the best season finale, at the end of the third season, Nikita is scheduled for a behavioral modification to eliminate her independence and turn her into the perfect compliant operative. The beginning arc of season 4 where her former lover and once perfect agent Michael fights to undo the modification is some of the most exciting TV I've seen.
"24" hasn't had the kind of cliffhanger that forces you to wait, but they've been dramatic, from the killing of Jack Bauer's wife at the end of season 1, to the apparent assassination via poison of the President at the end of season 2 (he survived), to the quite horror of the day at the end of season 3, where Jack gets no relief from duty.
On the other hand, "MI-5"'s first season cliffhanger, where Tom Quinn's girlfriend and her daughter are trapped inside his house with a bomb, was quite lame, especially when in the season 2 opener, a bomb goes off, blasting an identical looking house, only to have it turn out to be a different house. The second season cliffhanger, where Quinn shoots his boss to escape (purportedly to prove his innocence) was also pretty lame. Even though he does prove his innocence in an assassination of a British official, the fact that Quinn shot his boss should be grounds for at least firing him, if not outright prosecution.
Ultimately, I'm a sucker for these kinds of shows, but I still think that "Nikita" is the best of the bunch. It combined the sense of style that "Alias" sometimes has with the ruthless violence of "24" and the intricate inside workings of "The Agency" and "MI-5." Unfortunately, only season 1 of "Nikita" is available on DVD, and Warner Brothers has for some reason refused to release any more of it.