individual series have enjoyed enormous popularity and cult followings,
the spy genre overall has never been as successful nor as ubiquitous
in American television as westerns, medical dramas, and detective
programs. Nevertheless, espionage-themed programs can boast a number
of firsts, most notably the first African-American lead character
in a regular dramatic series (I Spy); the first female action lead
character in an hour-long American dramatic series (The Girl
From U.N.C.L.E.), and the first Russian lead character in an
American dramatic series (The Man From U.N.C.L.E.), the latter
appearing less than three years after the Cuban Missile Crisis.
during the so-called "spy craze" period of the mid-1960s when it
seemed that every action/adventure show borrowed elements from James
Bond, spies as television action heroes have been far outnumbered
by the more traditional figures of policemen and private investigators.
Even when they do appear, television spies (or "secret agents")
are often presented as international crime fighters rather than
as true undercover operators, with the emphasis on justice and law
enforcement rather than on clandestine activities. As a result,
there are few "pure" spy programs and most of the long-running ones
can be classed in other genre categories, including westerns (The
Wild, Wild, West), situation comedy (Get Smart), and
science fiction (The Avengers and The Prisoner).
The boundaries between the spy and other television genres is extremely
fluid, and the elements of the typical spy program are variable
and not easily defined. On television, spies and detectives have
a great deal in common. Both are tough, sometimes world-weary individuals
who live and work on the edges of normal society. Their antagonists
are rich, powerful, clever, and often apparently "respectable."
In both genres, because of the wealth and resources of the villain,
the heroes must use extra-legal means in order to triumph. Before
they do, they must progress through various narrative situations
including the assignment of the case/mission, investigation of the
crime, abduction by the villain, interrogation and/or torture, at
least one long, complicated chase and a final shoot-out or brawl.
The average secret agent tends to be more cerebral and sophisticated
than the average detective and if not wealthy himself, at least
comfortable with the trappings of wealth. Money is not an important
incentive, however. The secret agent's motives are personal and
philosophical, a dedication to certain moral or political ideals,
or simply a taste for the game of espionage itself. In its focus
on the "game"--the hero's intellectual ability to decipher clues,
solve complex mysteries, and outmaneuver the bad guys--the television
spy plot may resemble the classical detective story. Indeed, the
chess metaphor appears often in each.
there are several subtle differences that distinguish the television
secret agent from the detective and these can be seen in the transformation
of Amos Burke, the title character of the popular series Burke's
Law. For the first two years of the series' run, Burke (played
by Gene Barry) was a Los Angeles chief of detectives who also happened
to be a millionaire. In solving his homicide cases, Burke was chauffeured
around in a silver Rolls Royce. His cases were typical whodunits
involving the rich and glamorous portrayed by large casts of guest
in 1965, in order to cash in on the spy craze, Captain Amos Burke,
detective, became Amos Burke--Secret Agent. Since he was already
suave, sophisticated, witty, and charming, no character tinkering
was needed. However, several important changes were made. Burke
left the L.A.P.D. to work for a U.S. government intelligence agency,
with his only contact, a mysterious character called simply, "The
Man" (played by Carl Benton Reid). Burke's operating milieu subsequently
expanded from the confines of the Los Angeles area to include the
entire world. No longer a local millionaire sleuth, Burke became
a continent-hopping agent and his quarry changed from small time
murderers to international criminals whose schemes and machinations
had global consequences.
These changes, then, define the essential elements of the television
spy series: (1) The active presence of a government or quasi-government
agency in the life of the protagonist. The agency is shown to be
involved in clandestine and/or espionage activities. (2) Villains
who are often foreign, usually eccentric, and whose crimes have
larger political consequences. Most commonly, these villains desire
either to take over the world or to destroy it. (3) An expansion
of the plot setting beyond local and even national boundaries to
include a variety of countries and exotic locales.
James Bond appeared on the literary and later, cinematic scene,
spy stories have also incorporated a number of stylistic motifs
of his creator, Ian Fleming. These include ironic humor; the use
martial arts techniques for self-defense; a preoccupation with expensive
clothes, cars, food, accommodations and leisure pursuits; the presence
of beautiful women either as agents, antagonists, or innocent bystanders
caught up in the plot, and a fascination with weaponry and high
importance of these motifs should not be underestimated. For example,
Honey West was essentially a series about a female detective similar
to the later Remington Steel. Yet, critics have always categorized
it as a spy program simply because of its stylistic trappings, most
notably, Honey West's pet ocelot and the one-piece black
jumpsuit worn by the star, Anne Francis, so reminiscent of the wardrobe
of The Avengers' Emma Peel (Diana Rigg). On the other hand,
series like Tightrope and the later , which both feature
lead characters working undercover, are not considered spy programs
because the international reach of the enemy crime syndicates is
not emphasized, and because the heroes appear and function as police
The primary reason why spy shows are so few and far between on television
is that the genre does not adapt well to the production and aesthetic
needs of medium. In their book, The Spy Story (1987), John
G. Cawelti and Bruce A. Rosenberg delineate two subcategories of
spy fiction, both of which can be applied to spy stories on television.
first, originating with James Buchan (The Thirty-Nine Steps)
and other "clubmen" writers and re-invented by Ian Fleming, consists
of colorful, imaginative adventures with roving, honorable heroes,
dastardly villains and exotic settings. By comparison, the second
subcategory, identified with Eric Ambler, Grahame Green and more
recently, John Le Carre, contains tales of espionage more realistically
presented. Concerned with corruption, betrayal and conspiracy, these
stories feature a grayer mood, more circumscribed settings and ordinary
protagonists who seem, at first glance, not much different than
the people they oppose. The plotting is complicated and subtle,
and the endings are often downbeat, leaving the agent sadly disillusioned
or dead. The chief difference between the two subcategories is the
moral base of the narrative. In the first group, good and evil is
rendered in stark black and white. In the second, the morality is
with their literary equivalents, television spy stories may be similarly
divided into the romantic and the realistic, although as one might
expect, there is considerable overlap. Both types present problems
in adapting to the television medium.
romantic spy adventure, while meeting the aesthetic needs of the
medium for simplicity in storytelling, escapist interest and fast
paced excitement, requires foreign locations, numerous props, expensive
wardrobes, and other production details that can severely strain
a limited television budget. On the other hand, although the realistic
espionage story is likely to be less expensive to produce, the difficult
themes, depressive mood, and often unattractive characters do not
lend themselves to the medium, particularly to the demands of a
weekly network series.
As a result, to be produced for television, both types of spy stories
must be "domesticated", both literally and figuratively. For the
romantic spy program, elements of the so-called Bond formula of
"sex, snobbery, and sadism" must be toned down to small screen standards.
The intensity of torture sequences may be tempered by the use of
outlandishly humorous devices and Perils-of Pauline style narrow
escapes. Weapons may fire sleep inducing darts (The Man From
U.N.C.L.E.) or the hero may not carry a gun at all (as in the
quasi-espionage series, MacGyver). Location shoots must also
be kept to a minimum. Both The Man and The Girl From U.N.C.L.E.
filmed on the MGM backlot used an ingenious swish-pan technique
to get from one location to another. I Spy traveled overseas
but filmed a number of episodes in each country it visited. The
Prisoner was shot at an actual resort village at the Hotel Portmeiron
in North Wales. Adderly was fortunate enough to find Canadian locations
that could mimic the landscape of the Soviet Union and other European
countries. More recently, series like The Scarecrow and Mrs.
King confine themselves to U.S. settings, saving stories set
in foreign locales for season finales and sweeps weeks.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
realistic, even dyspeptic, espionage series like Danger Man,
Callan, and Sandbaggers, enjoyed healthy runs in the
United Kingdom but only one of these, Danger Man, ever crossed
the Atlantic to be seen in the States. To make the plotlines and
characters of realistic spy programs more appealing to American
audiences, television producers have employed a number of different
strategies. For example, Danger Man was retitled Secret
Agent and a snazzy Johnny Rivers song was added to the opening
and closing credits. Both I Led Three Lives in the 1950s
and The Equalizer in the 1980s exploited anxieties that were
close to home for the audience, mining Red Scare paranoia in the
case of the earlier show and fears of urban crime in the later.
strategy used by creators of realistic spy programs is to make the
central character morally certain. Although he was often surrounded
by double-crossing colleagues and double agents in Secret Agent,
John Drake's (Patrick McGoohan) own loyalty was never in question.
In The Equalizer, Edward Woodward, who earlier played a lonely,
cold-blooded assassin in Callan, returned as Robert McCall,
a retired CIA operative. McCall clearly had a past career similar
to Callan's, but now deeply regretted it. To expiate his past sins,
McCall became the self-styled Equalizer of the title, dedicating
his life and skills to protecting the weak and innocent free of
charge. McCall was also given a family--an estranged son, a dead
wife and a daughter whose existence he discovered during the run
of the series.
the usually isolated secret agent with family, colleagues, and friends
is yet another television strategy for domesticating both strains
of the genre. Humor and a fraternity boy camaraderie between Kelly
Robinson (Robert Culp) and Alexander Scott (Bill Cosby) leavened
I Spy's sometimes bleak Cold War ideology, while the developing
romance between the two lead characters (Bruce Boxleitner and Kate
Jackson) kept interest high between chases in The Scarecrow and
Mrs. King. In Under Cover, an intensely realistic series
which featured plotlines drawn directly from recent world events,
the husband and wife agents (Anthony John Denison and Linda Purl)
were forced to juggle the dangerous demands of their profession
with the everyday problems of home and family life. Finally, those
spy stories that, for whatever reason, could not be domesticated,
such as adaptations of bestselling spy thrillers, generally ended
up on cable or PBS, or on network television as TV movies and miniseries.
history of the spy on television reflects this continuing tension
between the genre and the medium, and between romantic and realistic
tendencies. Whenever public interest in foreign affairs is on the
rise, spy programs of both types proliferate, with fictional villains
reflecting the country's current political enemies.
first regular spy series appeared on U.S. television in the early
1950s. A handful, including an early series also called I Spy
(hosted by Raymond Massey) and Behind Closed Doors (hosted
by Bruce Gordon) were anthologies. Others, like Biff Baker
(Alan Hale Jr.) and Hunter (the first of four series called Hunter,
this one starring Barry Nelson) featured gentlemen amateurs caught
up in foreign intrigue through chance or patriotism. The rest, which
usually had the word "danger" in their titles (Doorway to Danger,
Dangerous Assignment, Passport to Danger) were undistinguished
half-hour series about professional agents battling Communists.
These series lasted, with only three exceptions, a year or less.
Those exceptions were I Led Three Lives, Foreign Intrigue and
Five Fingers. I Led Three Lives was an enormously popular
hit series based on the real-life story of FBI undercover agent
Herbert Philbrick who infiltrated the American Communist Party.
A favorite of J. Edgar Hoover (who considered it a public service),
the show reportedly was taken so seriously by some viewers that
they wrote the producers to report suspected Communists in their
neighborhood. Foreign Intrigue, a syndicated series boasted
colorful European locations but replaceable stars (five in four
years played four various wire service correspondents and a hotel
owner) who stumble across international criminals. Only the last,
Five Fingers, starring David Hedison as double agent Victor
Sebastian, even hinted at the cool, hip style that was to be the
hallmark of spy shows in the sixties.
interesting oddity during this period was an adaptation of Ian Fleming's
Casino Royale for the anthology series, Climax, in which
the British James Bond is transformed into an American agent, "Jimmy"
Bond (Barry Nelson) confronting a French Communist villain named
Le Sheef (originally Le Chiffre). After a tense game of baccarat,
Le Sheef (played by a sleepwalking Peter Lorre) captures Bond, confines
him in a hotel bathtub, and rather bizarrely tortures him by twisting
his bare toes with pliers.
is no doubt that the mid-1960s was the high water mark for the spy
genre. Spies were everywhere--in books, on records, on the big screen
and the little screen, and their images were emblazoned on countless
mass produced articles from toys to toiletries. Most were hour-long
color shows which featured pairs or teams of professional agents
of various races, genders and cultural backgrounds. The pace was
fast, the style, cool, with lots of outrageous villains, sexual
innuendo, technical gadgetry, and tongue-in-cheek humor. A third
subcategory of the genre, the spy "spoof", developed during this
time (Get Smart, created by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry,is the quintessential
example) but there was so much humor in the "serious" shows that
it was often difficult to distinguish spoofs from the real thing.
1968, the high spirits had soured and the spy craze came to a fitting
end with the unsettlingly paranoiac series, The Prisoner,
created and produced by its star, ex-Secret Agent Patrick McGoohan.
Still, many of the shows of this period, including The Man From
U.N.C.L.E., The Avengers, I Spy, The Wild, Wild West, Mission Impossible
and even The Prisoner have enjoyed continued life in
periodic film and television revivals and in cult fan followings
throughout the world.
decade of the 1970s saw a few sporadic attempts to breathe new life
into a moribund genre. All the spy series introduced during this
period featured gimmicky characters who worked for organizations
identified by acronyms. Among the gimmicks were an agent with a
photographic memory (The Delphi Bureau), agents fitted with
electronic devices connected to a computer (Search), an agent
accompanied by a giant assistant with a steel hand filled with gadgets
(A Man Called Sloane) and a superhuman cyborg (The Six
Million Dollar Man). With the exception of the last, which appealed
primarily to children, all were quickly cancelled. The beginning
of the next decade saw several "return" movies of 1960s favorites
like Get Smart, The Wild, Wild West, and the Man
From U.N.C.L.E. as well as quality television adaptations of
John Le Carre's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley's
People by the BBC (shown on PBS in the U.S.) This eventually
led to a mini-revival in spy programs in the mid-eighties, which
included serious, gritty series like The Equalizer and adaptions
of bestselling spy novels including Le Carre 's A Perfect Spy,
Len Deighton's Game Set Match, Ken Follett's Key to Rebecca
and Robert Ludlum's The Bourne Identity. As with Amos
Burke in the sixties, action series like The A-Team began
to boost their ratings by injecting espionage elements into their
unlike their predecessors of twenty years previous, the spies of
the 1980s were less fantastic and more pragmatic, with believable
technology and a post-modern sensibility. Even romantic adventure
series like Airwolf and Scarecrow and Mrs. King were
given a realistic edge. Indeed, this trend toward intense realism
reached its culmination in Under Cover, a series so realistic
that it was cancelled by a nervous ABC network after less than a
month on the air. In January 1991, a two-part episode of Under
Cover, in which Iraq planned to fire a virus-carrying missile
at Israel, was pulled from the schedule when the war in Kuwait broke
the 1994-95 season, the fledgling Fox network offered two spy series,
Fortune Hunter, a James Bond clone, and a revival of Get
Smart starring an aging Don Adams and Barbara Feldon. Both series
were cancelled after extremely abbreviated runs.
Cawleti, John G. and Bruce A. Rosenberg. The Spy Story. Chicago,
Illinois: University of Chicago Press, 1987.
Ralph. The World of the Thriller. Cleveland, Ohio: The Press
of Case Western Reserve University, 1969.
Donald and Katy Fletcher. Spy Fiction: A Connoisseur's Guide.
New York: Facts on File, 1990.
Richard. TV Detectives. San Diego, California: A.S. Barnes
& Co., 1981.
O.F. 007 James Bond: A Report. New York: New American Library,
Get Smart; I
Spy; Man from U.N.C.L.E./The
Girl from U.N.C.L.E.; Mission:
Impossible; The Prisoner;
Tinker Tailor Soldier