As with spy movies, 2011 was an excellent year for spy TV, too. There may not have been quite as many new spy series as last year (but then again, maybe there were), but the ones we got were pretty darn good for the most part. Additionally, the right shows from last year (Archer, Covert Affairs, Nikita) were renewed, and came back strong. (Well, the first two did, anyway. Nikita hasn't quite found its footing since the big shakeup at the end of Season 1.) Once again, there's such an embarrassment of riches that rather than just saying that Page Eight or Homeland are the best TV of the year, I can make individual categories, like the Emmies.
Best New Spy TV Show of 2011 - Homeland
I have to admit up front: I'm behind. I haven't yet seen the entire first season of Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa's Showtime drama Homeland. Perhaps it takes a 24-style dive in quality in the second half of the season. I hope not, though, and I don't expect it to based on the strength of the early episodes, which are compelling enough on their own for me to make this selection. Gordon and Gansa successfully dial down their frenetic 24 pacing to create a slow-build spy drama that devotes an entire season (and possibly an entire series) to the question of whether or not an American (in this case a rescued POW played by Damien Lewis) is an enemy agent. That's quite a feat after 24 raised and answered that question on an almost weekly basis (to the point of absurdity), its spy agency (CTU) more rife with moles than Kim Philby's MI6. When this cable show, a remake of an Israeli series, was first announced, I wondered how it could possibly perpetuate its Manchurian Candidate setup into an entire season, let alone an entire series, but Gordon and Gansa answered that question right off the bat in a truly terrific pilot: the way television should sustain a season, with rich, compelling characters. Lewis' Sgt. Nicholas Brody may well be a terrorist, but Gansa, Gordon and director Michael Cuesta still make us care about him and even identify with him. Would you have expected that from the producers of 24? Claire Danes' CIA agent Carrie Mathison, meanwhile, is so troubled she makes Queen & Country's Tara Chace seem well-adjusted. She's obsessive. She's on anti-psychotic medications, and hiding her condition from the Agency. She blames herself for 9/11. And, like many a fictional spy before her but in a much more pathetic light, she seeks refuge from her troubles in a parade of compulsive, anonymous sexual encounters. (She even wears a wedding ring to ward off potential relationship-seekers.) Danes compiles all of these severe character flaws into a character you can't take your eyes off of, the first TV spy tailor-made for cable. And those are just the leads. Virtually every character on screen is well-developed, with only David Harewood's Deputy CIA Director ringing a cliched note. Homeland is as compelling as television gets.
Cinemax's Strike Back (full review here), another cable show, may not be the intelligent action drama that its UK progenitor was, but it's thoroughly watchable in its own right, offering the opposite of what Homeland gives us: instead of well-rounded characters, we get mindless action, preposterous stunts and frequent nudity... and sometimes that's exactly what we want. Strike Back delivers it with style. I can't quite tell where I stand on CBS's Person of Interest, starring Jim Caviezel as a former CIA agent who pools his spy know-how with Michael Emerson's infinite resources to help New York's helpless, Equalizer-style. It's The Equalizer meets Batman, and that's a pretty cool combo. Some episodes are great. Others are quite terrible. It doesn't really deserve an honorable mention most of the time, but I wanted to say something about it and this seemed like the appropriate place.
Best Spy TV Movie or Miniseries - Page Eight
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, one of my two picks for Best Spy Film of the Year, didn't have a monopoly on all-star casts among serious British spy dramas this year. An almost equally all-star ensemble could be seen on TV (on BBC in England, and on PBS's Masterpiece Contemporary in America) in David Hare's adult drama Page Eight, including Bill Nighy, Michael Gambon, Ralph Fiennes, Rachel Weisz, Judy Davis and Ewen Bremner. Nighy stars as a senior MI5 analyst Johnny Worricker whose life is thrown upside down when his boss gives him a secret document whose eighth page contains a bombshell big enough to bring down the government and then dies before instructing him on what, exactly, he wanted him to do with this intelligence. Simultaneously to these events, he's just met the perfect woman in his next door neighbor, played by Weisz. But Worricker's been in the spy game too long to believe in coincidences. Is he right to be suspicious? Or will paranoia rob him of the best thing he's ever stumbled into? This is espionage of the serious, slow-moving school at it's very best. The action plays out deliberately on the faces of these veteran thespians in the form of sidelong glances that say more than monologues instead of in car chases and gunfights. And we get plenty of that class-conscious in-fighting and office politics that I love in this sort of British desk spy story. Page Eight is that rare class of TV movie that just as easily could have been theatrical, and fans of John le Carré and Len Deighton should eat it up.
Best Returning Spy TV Show - Archer
There's not much new that I can say about Archer that I didn't say when I picked it as last year's best new show, but I do find it impressive that the writers managed to maintain the high level of quality in its second season. That's particularly tough for a parody series. The secret, of course, is that Archer is much more than a mere spy parody. It's a dysfunctional family comedy that happens to be set in a spy agency. As I said before, the extremely raunchy humor is definitely not for all tastes, but if it is to your liking, you'll no doubt appreciate the excellent animation and cool spy style on top of the gags. As for the parody side, there are a lot of great pop culture parodies (yes, actual, clever parodies and not mere Family Guy-style references), and not just to spy movies. As a life-long Magnum, P.I. fan, my head nearly exploded when one episode, "Placebo Effect," ended with a lengthy, nearly line-for-line recreation of one of the most memorable Magnum endings. "Did You See the Sun Rise" is classic television that deserves much more of a place in the history of the medium than it gets, but unlike some of the more famous Miami Vice moments, doesn't seem to be that well known outside of a core group of Magnum fans. For those that do know it, though, that Archer reference will blow your mind. What other show would even greenlight such a thing? Of course, the end of "Placebo Effect" works just fine for viewers who aren't familiar with the Magnum episode. As it should, in any good parody. I just happen to be a Magnum fan, but I'm sure I'm probably missing other, equally obscure references on Archer. But I don't feel like I'm losing out, because the show is so consistently funny no matter what level you appreciate it on.
Covert Affairs also came back strong. But I'm about to talk about that below...
Best Spy TV Episode - Covert Affairs - "Uberlin"
There were a lot of good episodes of spy television this year, but the Berlin-set second season episode of Covert Affairs demonstrated why that USA show deserves to be taken seriously as spy TV. Writer Erica Shelton offered everything spy fans could ask for from a good spy show, or even movie: real Berlin locations, Cold War intrigue, assets with dubious loyalties, and even some action in the form of a pretty cool car chase. I love the way that this show uses actual foreign locations—and uses them well. Producer Doug Liman (director of The Bourne Identity) told a Comic-Con crowd this year that it's frequently just him and a camera on these foreign shoots, shooting guerrilla style, but in the case of "Uberlin" episode director Jonathan Glassner clearly deserves at least some of the credit. I don't know how much of the episode was actually shot in the German capital, but Glassner uses whatever bits were to clearly create the impression that it all was. Plus, the episode made full use of the show's most undervalued asset: Peter Gallagher. The plot found his CIA honcho forced back into the field for one assignment alongside Annie Walker (Piper Perabo).
As I said, there were a lot of good episodes this year. The second season premiere of Archer was a standout in a series that nearly always delivers the goods, showcasing both the show's raunchy humor and stylish animated action in a hilarious episode that combined alpine spyjinks like snowmobile chases and ski chalets with a running gag about an underage celebutante throwing herself at Archer. The pilot of Homeland, as I mentioned above, was also stellar. It did everything a pilot should, clearly establishing the show's characters and making the audience care about them in only an hour while at the same time putting into motion a complex ongoing plot. Nikita also deserves mention for its penultimate Season 1 episode, "Betrayal," which perfectly paid off a season's worth of plot threads in an exciting build-up to a final confrontation between Nikita and division. The actual finale, unfortunately, didn't quite deliver on the promise of "Betrayal," as it scrambled to get its ducks in a row for Season 2. It's ironic, but had the series been cancelled after a single season it might have delivered a more satisfying finale.
Worst of 2011
As with all of this year's spy movies, this TV season was really good enough to avoid any real Worst Of contenders. The worst script I read was for the pilot of Fox's Exit Strategy, but that didn't make it to air. (And, I have to admit, the actual filmed pilot marked an improvement on the script... though it still didn't merit a pickup.) ABC's Sixties-set spying stewardess series Pan-Am didn't compel me to tune in beyond the first few episodes, but it didn't outright stink either. Mainly, the non-spy elements weren't that compelling to me. So with no Under Covers on the schedule, I'm going to give the networks a pass as well and not anoint a Worst Series this year. (If we venture slightly outside the spy perimeters, though, that revival of Charlie's Angels was the worst television I've seen in years! Luckily, I've already forgotten it.)
Still to come: the best and worst spy DVDs of 2011... and a look ahead at the coming year. Check back soon!