It's the job of a spy to be covert, secretive, undercover. But a quick glance at TV's current landscape reveals that spies are far from in hiding: There's FX's lauded "The Americans," AMC's new "Turn," Showtime's Emmy-winning "Homeland" and even BBC America's one-off miniseries "Fleming: The Man Who Would Be Bond." So, what secret places in audience psyches are these shows tapping into?
"We're continually interested in spies because of the nature of their covert lives, the inherent danger in their work and the stakes of what they do," says "Homeland" show runner Alex Gansa (who clarifies that most of the CIA agents on his show are intelligence officers, rather than spies as such).
Spies and their flashy exploits have long appeared in features, and whether as the quiet George Smiley of John le Carré's imagination or the classy classic of Ian Fleming's James Bond, their stories tend to focus on a single mission that ends in explosions, nudity and blood. But the spy dramas now making waves on TV are a different animal, thanks in part to a medium that lets their stories breathe and take on multilayered meanings.
"Americans" producers have long insisted that their show about KGB spies embedded as a U.S. family is both about marriage in general and about spying in particular, simultaneously. That, says executive producer Joel Fields, is why the show appeals on a deeper level.
"The show asks who we are in marriage and other relationships, and that poses the fundamental question that spies play as well — playing someone they're not," he says.
"The idea that someone lives a double life is dramatically very exciting," says Douglas Rae, executive producer for "Fleming." "So someone who manages to be two people at once is hugely appealing for a dramatist."
But Rae notes that spy dramas are catnip to traditional crime show fans who want more to chew on. "It's not like a cop show where there's a crime, and a detective comes along to solve the crime," he says. "Usually, the spy is the one committing an act — like taking someone out — and then becomes the hunted. It lifts the whole crime show into another level, in a fantasy world."
The real-world life of a spy, says fellow "Americans" show runner Joe Weisberg, a former CIA agent, is dramatically short on James Bond dramatics ("There isn't even a version where spies are hyper-competent or confident," he notes). TV can fill that sweet spot between movie fantasy and reality, mapping out the less glamorous worlds of spies in a relaxed (if still hugely suspenseful) way. "In the real world, spies are caught in a doomed web of falseness, and all for a very questionable purpose that often leads nowhere," says Fields. "We reflect that in a powerful way on the show."
The success of "Homeland" and "The Americans" has led to more attempts to branch out into that territory. "Turn" focuses on secrets passed on during the American Revolution. Executive producer Barry Josephson says he feels "compelled and riveted" by spy stories, which create a "real, strong dilemma that holds a character's feet to the fire — and spying does that no matter what period it's in."
Gansa for one believes the general success of so many covert tales is tied into the overall resurgence of serial dramas on TV.
"It's very difficult to tell a good spy story in one episode," he says. "A good murder mystery or crime drama ends in an arrest, so you can do that in one episode. But spy stories — arrests … are of negative value to intelligence officers; there's always another step, and morality gets skewed. It makes spy stories feel sophisticated and complicated."
"And," quips Fields, "Spies are cool."