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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.

Oh, how's this for a segue? The name of the actor who played Michael Santana was Stephen Bauer -- which leads us to our choice for TV's all time, #1 secret/special agent ... 

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.

Now, all of this would be above-standard fare on TV, even before considering the fact that each season consists of one (one!) 24-hour day. Unrealistic? Maybe. Likely that an agent with this many identifying nemesis could survive longer than the 4 days depicted by the show's length up to now? With Jack's ruthlessness and skills, the debate could go either way (we like to think yes, if his CTU's comrades could stop bickering amongst each other, overcome various personal dilemmas and tend to their ace-in-the-hole, for the sake of millions of other innocents). Do we care about nitpicking? Absolutely not. Engrossing and tension-packed? Absolutely yes!

Thankfully, the show's writers and its star, the charismatic Keifer Sutherland, chose not to go on the tragic route for this character, who after 4 years, was bound to get his comeuppance, with Mr. Sutherland ready to hang up Bauer's sneakers. So, at the end of the 2-hour finale of the 4th season, Bauer receives orders from President Palmer to fake his own death in order to avoid the Chinese government's wrath. As Jack dons his shades and walks into the sunset, from the U.S. through the Canadian border -- and into the books as TV's #1-Coolest Ever Secret/Special Agent -- we wonder if the next '24' hours will provide the same kind of uncompromising, politically-charged, brutal drama. Only time can tell ... (Cool '24' trivia fact: Mr. Sutherland was in a Toronto, Ontario bar watching this season finale, as his Bauer character walks towards an undisclosed Canadian destination -- another example of life imitating art imitating life!)

HONORABLE MENTIONS: 'The Mod Squad', 'The Man from U.N.C.L.E.', 'Eye Spy', 'Magnum P.I.', 'McGuyver', 'The 'A' Team'

List from hifispy.com


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