Spooks aka MI-5: Pilot (2002) TV Review

The British should probably reconsider making too many movies and TV shows about their intelligence agencies. After all, look at what’s happened to the Americans. After 30-plus years of Hollywood dragging the reputation of the CIA and the FBI through the mud, the vast majority of people around the world now freely blame everything from the drought to the morning subway train being late on the CIA.

And so, with the coming of the British “Spooks” (re-titled “MI-5” for American consumption), it won’t be long before people begin blaming the fluctuations in their country’s stock market on shadowy agents of MI-5. And no, James Bond doesn’t count. He’s a good spy, remember? James Bond battles Goldfinger for the fate of the Earth, while the CIA engineers the rise of dictators and poisons rice crops in Asia because, you know, they’re evil and stuff. Of course, the only people who probably don’t think too highly of James Bond are the South Koreans, ala the “Die Another Day” fiasco of last year, but that’s another story.

Matthew MacFadyen leads the cast of “Spooks” as Tom Quinn, an agency veteran who is seeing a woman who doesn’t know his real name, or his occupation. After an abortion doctor is killed in a bomb blast that also injures her young daughter, MI-5 targets pro-life extremists gearing up for more attacks. Before the pilot’s first 10 minutes are up, the agents have efficiently zeroed in on an infamous American pro-life activist who has come across the Pond to train some of her British brethrens in the death trade. (Apparently the irony of killing in order to save children from being aborted doesn’t register. Oh well, who ever said extremism made sense.)

And that, as they say, is the story. Well, mostly. While MI-5 attempts to capture the activist, the Americans, being so American, are demanding extradition — as in now. Oy, those Ugly Americans, they’re so…uh, ugly!

Showing on the A&E in 60 minutes plus commercials (meaning there’s actually only about 45 minutes of actual show), the “Spooks” pilot is a breezy look at the show’s mechanics, and not much about anything else. Aside from the explosion in the episode’s first minutes (of which we only see the aftermath of), the rest of the episode is devoid of action. The fact that the director tosses in all kinds of groovy split screens ala “24” and exciting music ala “Alias” hardly changes the fact that the film looks, and is, low budget. Then again you could just say that this is precisely the “charm” of a British show — it’s lack of resources and “stripped” nature. My take is that the show is too ambitious for its own good, and its origins as a BBC original series show.

Since “Spooks” is a British show, it has to be given leverage for not knowing America and Americans all that well. After all, you could probably list the dozens of mistakes American shows make when it comes to the British. Of course that still doesn’t change the fact that the radical pro-lifer’s “Southern” accent is atrocious, and that she sure acts like a slut (she sleeps around) for someone claiming to be working on the behest of God. Then again, you could say she’s inherently a hypocrite, although I still find this ’50ish woman humping away at nights just to convince a man to join her cause to be a tad unbelievable.

The only character in “Spooks” that gets any semblance of characterization is lead Matthew MacFadyen. In brief spurts, we learn that: he has some sort of mentoring relationship with fellow spy Zoe and is apparently a good friend of the agency’s spirited chief played by Peter Firth. And I also think there’s supposed to be something going on between Quinn and the CIA liaison played by Megan Dodds, whose character is of course loud, rude, and downright bitchy. As for the rest? I think Zoe has a kid, although the boy could just be a prop.

If watching spy shows devoid of credible action (or even any action at all) is your cup of tea, then “Spooks” is a good addition to your daily viewings. It’s definitely nowhere in the vicinity of “The Agency”, the American TV show about the CIA that merged high-tech spy gadgets with complex issues ripped straight from the headlines. The most gadgets you’ll get out of “Spooks” is guys planting bugs in smoke detectors and agents speaking into each other’s ear mic. That isn’t to say you need gadgets to make a spy show, but it certainly helps. After all, a spy show without gadgets is, well, a cop show, isn’t it? And who needs another cop show in a market already glutted with them.

David Wolstencroft (director)
CAST: Keeley Hawes …. Zoe Reynolds
Matthew MacFadyen …. Tom Quinn
Peter Firth …. Harry Pearce
David Oyelowo …. Danny Hunter
Jenny Agutter …. Tessa Phillips
Hugh Simon …. Malcolm Wynn-Jones

Buy MI-5 on DVD