The greatest spies on TV
5) Maxwell Smart, "Get Smart", 1965-1970: "Of course! It's all coming back to me now!" This 60's staple of hi-tech virtuosity was simply a hoot to watch, plus oddly relateable, even with arch-nemeses' CONTROL and KAOS' wild gadgetry; Don Adams' Maxwell Smart was the Everyman in a covert agent's suit. He offset the impossible, campy cool of Roger Moore's James Bond by invariably bumping into his own chamber's door at the start of every show, played straight man to his cohorts' witty one-liners, and was a ladies' man without being a kitsch-ish gigolo like Mr. "Shaken, Not Stirred." His over-the-top kalaidescope-secret-agent-door lampooned the seemingly overdone hi-techery of his more serious counterparts, which was then itself lampooned by shows such as "The Simpsons" (check out Mr. Burns' impenetrable nuclear shutdown room where a stray dog enters through a rusty screen door). Plus, the show's concept was successfully duplicated for kids in the "Inspector Gadget" animated series. These days, many so-called agent shows bring about the same laughs, though unintentionally. And 'would you believe' it still holds up decades after the series' swan song?
4) John Shaft, "Shaft", 1973-1974: OK, so Richard Roundtree's Shaft wasn't exactly an undercover brother -- far from it, in fact. Everyone knew Shaft's name and his game. And he wasn't decidely hi-tech (heck, 'The Man' didn't even want Black dudes owning guns in those days, much less government-issued tasers and trackers and the like.) But that was then, and he can't be blamed for the limiting prejudices of his time (Link from 'The Mod Squad' notwithstanding). Nowadays, his savoir-faire and derring-do would make him a swashbuckling spy anti-hero that the small screen would salivate over, were he given meatier game than hoodrats and small-time hustlers. In an age where Ice Cube, Vin Diesel and other new jacks have hi-calibre periphery at their disposal and taking advantage of them XXX-style, we wonder what a post-9/11 Shaft would do with an arsenal like that. Infiltrate the Russian mob? Halt the flow of narcotics from South America through the Caribbean? He had way too much natural charm to deal only with sucka gangsters in the 'hood. And he was a loose, my-own-man cannon before it became hip to be a loose cannon on the job. So, for all of this -- plus, his all-around Black male coolness -- he deserves a place on this list, if for potential/blueprint status alone. He was ahead of the game without the hi-tech gadgetry. He was a lone wolf who had a knack for getting contacts, and never shady with the ladies. He had an deep-in-the-cut vibe without having to stay incognito inside. And he was ultra smooth but still always in your face if need be. If all of this sounds paradoxical ... hey, he's a complicated man. He was a bad mutha-- ... but of course, we're just talking about Shaft. Can you dig it?
3) Robert McCall, "The Equalizer", 1985-1989: This is a guy to whom the saying "If looks could kill ..." wholly applies. Who can forget the intro to the show, where a steel-eyed Edward Woodward's McCall character casts you a gaze that practically begs you to take him on? It seems almost a default that he would have access to allies' most secretive devices, and would be enthusiastic in utilizing them for his means. After all, Bond got them by tongue-in-cheek double-entendres; surely, his fellow Brit could obtain same with his sharp-and-to-the-point accent and delivery. This truly was an example of the beginning of pathos in TV agent land; McCall has to contend with a dead wife, estranged son and a long-lost daughter while trying to prevent certain chaos. This is an agent with a conscience: ex-CIA, and deeply regrets it -- which is why he serves the weak and innocent free of charge. Is this guy a cool face for altruism or what?
2) Vinnie Terranova, "Wiseguy", 1987-1990: One of TV's
up-until-recently forgotten gems, 'Wiseguy' pioneered the 'serial-series' for
TV programs of any genre -- meaning, one theme/plot would run over several
episodes of the show, instead of each episode containing individual conflicts
and resolutions. Ken Wahl's Vincent Terranova, undercover FBI agent, was the
thinking man's thug agent -- tough as nails, but with a penchant for
pensiveness, moral reflection and other deep analysis about the meaning of his
duties. He confided his concerns to his off-site tech guy, Uncle Mike, and was
at once a source of great relief and consternation for his boss, Frank McPike.
This was another show introducing the modern take on the secret agent/spy,
because besides its episode-to-episode plot continuity, it introduced a truly
3-dimensional character behind the death-defying espionage and duplicity; this
is a character that ponders his compromising role, thinks and feels in every
episode. 'Wiseguy''s cult value is only raised by the fact that the show's
star became so disenamored with show biz life that he practically walked off
the show, thus leaving writers with no choice but to kill off one of TV's
coolest undercover agents ever. In fact, Terranova's replacement, Michael
Santana, lacked the former's intrinsic intellect-thug appeal, and the show
quickly sank to its eventual cancellation.
1) Jack Bauer, "24", 2001-present(?): "This is going to be
the longest day of my life." When Jack Bauer, agent-in-charge of L.A.'s
Counter-Terrorist Unit, calmly explains the visceral consequences to a
terrorist for non-cooperation in the series' 1st season (involving gutting his
interviewee with a solution-soaked towel), we knew we had our man right away.
Doing away with all heretofore niceties, it was refreshing to hear a guy
trying to stop terrorism come up with some pretty creative, pretty nasty
terror-inducing tactics of his own. Where do we start? Throughout the years,
we see a guy clearly on the edge and in need of a serious vacation (to say the
least). His wife is murdered and he is estranged from his daughter. He foils
an assassination attempt on a presidential candidate, pretends to fall for his
wife's female killer to stop the terrorist no-goodniks, and even lives the
American dream by shooting his own double-crossing boss in the head. He hacks
off one of his cohort's hands to free it from a devastating virus bomb and
goes undercover to stop a drug-dealing ring, during which time he himself gets
addicted to heroin. He witnesses the downing of the president and his son's
Air Force One jet, a prelude to the terror to come as a nuclear warhead
threatens 10s of millions of lives on U.S. soil. Finally, the last three
episodes end with Jack covertly kidnapping a Chinese man with knowledge of the
whereabouts of said nuclear warhead-strapped missile about to inflict massive
destruction. Somehow, he manages to get the entire Chinese government (!) on
his tail also, due to the accidental killing of a Chinese government official
during his raid. Incidentally, his interplay with ex-President Palmer (TV's
first believeable African-American President, acting in place of a spineless,
and ultimately ungrateful, VP-turned-acting-President Logan) throughout the
crisis is one of the more interesting government-character dialogues in recent
memory, a combination of genuine friendship and official duty.
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