Traditional spy shows are so bombastic and action-packed that the protagonists don’t have time to say goodbye on the phone. They offer little time for thinking between synchronised explosions and product placement. If the hero gets caught short of an exploding pen, sonic screwdriver or lightsaber, they’re pretty fucked.
Now, modern spy thrillers focus on conversations over a cup of tea and cake, with the odd death and explosion.
That’s not to say they’re boring. These chats don’t take place in wood-panelled rooms – most of the time. Instead, exotic beaches or grey cities, cursed with perpetual rainfall, play host to global menaces and political brunches. A real treat, when you’re in the mood for overly verbose exposition.
They’re a long way from the episodic, mission-of-the-week formats of The Avengers and The Saint, which deal with such low-level criminals as murderers and drug traffickers. If a spy show villain isn’t a tortured, maniacal madman with their finger over a big, red, world-ending button, they should never have graduated from Vlad Putin and Kim Jong-un’s School of Bastardry.
Quick one-and-done missions have been replaced by series-long arcs, crueller baddies, and so great an insight into the protagonists’ psyches that you empathise with why they don’t eat orange sweets. Still, one thing is the same: you still can’t be a spy if you don’t look shit-hot in a tuxedo. It’s how they blend in.
The modern spy genre works hard to make us care about protagonists. They resemble actual human beings rather than the cheerless androids programmed to ‘do their duty at all costs’ from Spooks.
In London Spy, Danny (Ben Whishaw) is drawn into the world of espionage to discover what happened to the man of his dreams. Jonathan Pine (Tom Hiddleston) sets out on a revenge mission against the ‘worst man in the world’ for the death of his lover in The Night Manager. Joe Lambe’s (Tom Hughes) decision to almost defect to Russia haunts him in The Game. All of the stories are personal.
Pine has to take on false identity after false identity to avoid the suspicions of serial serpentine smiler, Panama Papers personality, arms dealer, and all-round prick, Richard Roper (Hugh Laurie). Joe doesn’t have it any easier coming up against a KGB plot to destabilise the Western world, and playing multiple games of ‘Guess Who?’ to find out whose a double agent, triple agent, quadruple agent. They both have it pretty easy compared to Danny, who tries to unravel a conspiracy wrapped in a riddle, wrapped in an enigma, wrapped in a conundrum, orchestrated by the entire intelligence community. Sucks to be him.
The pace is slower and there are fewer spontaneous combustions and somersaulting cars than in an episode of Spooks, but the new spy shows have bigger booms. Protagonists have more to lose. If Wembley Stadium blew up, the editing fairy wouldn’t fix it by the following week, only for it to be cratered again. There are consequences for every action, tensions rise until they hook you, and you’re flailing on the line. Knowing the shows’ heroes are fallible draws you in and makes you feel for them. Spies aren’t emotionless, suave robots anymore. They’re human.
And they have a license to thrill with tea, cake, and explosions.