Spies Like Us

I’ve been watching a couple of TV shows about spies lately. I’m not sure why, but I am.  And I’m enjoying them. Both of them are really interesting looks at spies, from very different angles, with a lot of differences. But the thing that’s got me thinking is the fact that they have a lot of things in common, too; things that I like.

The first one is The Sandbaggers, which is a British show from the ’70s, and the other is Burn Notice, which is a current American show.

The Sandbaggers is pretty gritty, with most of the action taking place in the dingy offices and corridors of the British intelligence buildings, with occasional glimpses of the agents in the field. It is, in many ways, the polar opposite of the James Bond stuff. No one wants to use a gun unless they have to, and in that case things are already pretty much unsalvageable. There aren’t any cool gadgets or flashy cars or masquerading as international men of mystery. The story is all about gathering information, and making decisions when you know you don’t know enough. There are strong themes of loyalty vs. expedience, politics vs. patriotism, pragmatism vs. idealism, and the emotional toll that such questions take on people.

Burn Notice, on the other hand, is a fairly light show, with a lot more action. Every week, Michael Westen is taking on a new client, helping them straighten out a problem. There are guns, car chases, even a few gadgets. And it takes place in Miami, so there are lots of half-dressed women wandering around. There are some similar themes, though: loyalty vs. expedience, pragmatism vs. idealism, and the emotional toll are all explored, in addition to the question of who can be trusted when all your friends are professional liars, and your family is all accomplished amature liars.

So, what do I find in common between these two shows that makes me want to watch them both?

The trickster nature of the spies.

James Bond may look suave and genteel, but he’s not subtle; he’s intelligent, but not clever. He is, as M says in Casino Royale, a blunt instrument.

The spies in these shows are subtle, clever, intelligent, resourceful, and generally afraid of consequences. Willie Caine, the primary agent in The Sandbaggers, hates guns, and tries to avoid them as much as possible, though he’s skilled in their use. Michael Westen remarks how a hardware store is usually more useful to a covert operative than a gun, and proceeds to show you why.

There are layers and layers of deception in both the shows, showing the use of information and disinformation and information used as disinformation. The entire quest is to figure out what the other guy is doing, and what he knows about what you’re doing. Intelligence and counterintelligence.

Dirty tricks.

These are characters who live and die by their wits, not by their firepower. Sure, there’s a little bit of gunplay, and a chase here and there, but what’s really happening are the two sides are trying to outthink each other, to force their opponents to make a mistake, and then capitalize on it.

The other thing I really like about the shows is that they make it very clear the kind of price someone pays for living that way. Neil Burnside in The Sandbaggers is driven, alone, and very bitter. Michael Westen of Buirn Notice, though he comes off very charming when he needs to, seems almost dead inside – there are a few scenes when you see him put on his winning smile over a dead-eyed face when something unexpected happens.

They’re damaged goods.

Which makes sense when you consider the kinds of things they have to do every day. The lying, the deception, the danger… it’s got to wear on you. One of the lines in Burn Notice is, “People with happy childhoods don’t grow up to be spies.” You can see that.

Now, I know next to nothing about the real intelligence community. I don’t claim to be an expert on spies in any sense. I don’t know any, personally.*

But the way they are portrayed in these two shows makes dramatic, emotional sense. It feels right. And that’s what fiction needs more than actual accuracy.**

So, I like these shows. They appeal to my sense of what spies should be like. They are interesting, well-written, and tell good stories.

If that sounds interesting, check them out.


*As far as I know, that is.

**The value and cost of verisimilitude in fiction is a matter for another day.

I Miss Studio 60

Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip was one of my favourite shows last year, and they canceled it on me.

Yeah, this is after the fact, and yeah, I know that nothing’s gonna bring it back, but I’ve just been really pining for it lately. And it got me thinking about why I like it, and other Aaron Sorkin shows.

The man’s got a formula for a show, and he seems to stick pretty close to it. Fortunately, I think it’s a pretty good formula, with a lot of flexibility and room for different stuff, but it’s still a formula. Here’s the Aaron Sorkin formula, as I have deciphered it:

  1. Make a bunch of really smart characters.
  2. Put them in a pressure cooker.
  3. Hilarity ensues.

Pretty straightforward, right? Let’s talk about each step.

Hey! It’s my blog! I’ll talk about whatever I want!

1. Make a bunch of really smart characters.

This seems like an easy step, but it’s not. See, Sorkin’s characters aren’t just smart, they’re very smart, but in realistic and believable ways. Also, and this is important, they’re different. So much TV just goes for geeky when they want a smart character – that’s lazy, it’s demeaning, and it has a limited shelf-life. Sure, if a character starts to develop a following, it’ll get fleshed out as the series goes on.

Sorkin doesn’t like that short cut, it seems. His smart characters are not universally geeky. They are like smart people in the real world – successful. They are smart enough to do complex, high-pressure jobs, smart enough to know that they need social skills, and smart enough to dress like real people. Sure, they have their little quirks, but they’re human quirks, quirks we can recognize and identify with.

Matt and Danny in Studio 60 are a perfect example of this. They are both smart, successful guys who can, between them, run a TV show or movie production. Sure, Danny’s a bit of a control freak, and Matt can’t let go of an old girlfriend, and they both hate being told what to do, but they are not geeks and they are not the same. They complement each other, and create an interesting dynamic on screen.

And, even without the pocket protectors, you never doubt that they’re smart, even if they do something stupid from time to time, as we all do.

2. Put them in a pressure cooker.

Sports Night. The West Wing. Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. They all revolve around high-pressure jobs, with the characters constantly struggling to put out the fires that keep cropping up. Why?

Stress allows you to explore characters. Characters are at their most interesting when they react under pressure. It’s an old formula. It lets you delve into their personalities, because hidden feelings and thoughts often come out during stressful periods.

Also, it gives you a constant stream of plots. If you establish that a given situation believably has time-sensitive, high-stakes things cropping up all the time (White House, TV production, etc.), then you’ve got a ready-made excuse for whatever you want to throw into the mix. You’ve laid the groundwork (We’ve got to write, rehearse, produce, and broadcast an hour-long sketch comedy show once a week, and the network wants to fire us, and all the actors are nuts, and public relations is a mess, and…), so no one in the audience bats an eye when the Nevada cops come in and arrest one of the actors and drags him off to Pahrump, or all the writers quit overnight.

It’s a bit of a cheat, as well. It allows you to focus on just certain aspects of the world and the characters. You don’t see much of the lives of the characters outside of work. You don’t meet many extraneous characters. You only get the news that affects the show. It gives a believably narrow focus, allowing you to just tell the story you want to tell.

3. Hilarity ensues.

So, now you have smart characters, and situations for them to react to. Go to town.

The nice thing about this combination is that the events can be completely unexpected, because you’ve already set up the expectation of surprises. It gives you a real flexibility to pick and choose what events spawn the stories. And, because the characters are smart, they can respond in a wide variety of ways. Smart characters just naturally have more choices in ways to think about, feel about, and respond to things.

The core of drama is having something be both surprising and inevitable. That means that what you see has to catch you off-guard in some way, but still fit completely with what has gone before. In short, it has to make sense. This is the hilarity ensuing.

It doesn’t have to be hilarious, by the way. Drama works just as well. And Sorkin always seems to have a deft touch in the mixing of the two.

So, that’s why I liked Studio 60, now gone before its time. At least with The West Wing, we got seven seasons.

Oh, well. I’m looking forward to whatever Sorkin does next.