22 May 2009

MI-5: Season 1

MI-5 Season One An Intelligent Delight
By Kristin Battestella

I don’t remember how I first heard about the British spy series MI-5. Maybe it popped up in my Netflix recommendations or was it by playing six degrees of Kevin Bacon with the cast? Regardless of how, I’m very glad I finally spent a night with MI-5 on my Instant Watch. Contemporary espionage mixed with timeless human hang-ups make this an intelligent, edge of your seat show that you can’t take your eyes off of.

MI-5 Section D chief Tom Quinn (Matthew Macfadyen, Pride and Prejudice) is as good as an intelligence operative as you can get. He and his junior operatives Zoe Reynolds (Keeley Hawes, Ashes to Ashes) and Danny Hunter (David Oyelowo, The Last King of Scotland) are on the front lines of terror in Britain on a daily basis. Unfortunately, their special status doesn’t make the men and women at Thames House immune to real world troubles.

MI-5, Volume 1Now, I have to confess, I’m not intimately familiar with law and order and secret organizations across the pond. However, that’s not going to stop me from watching MI-5, either. There are plenty of touches of CIA and MI-6, but the series keeps its focus tight on a handful of operatives. The stakes are high and head writer David Wolstencroft isn’t afraid to use, abuse, and kill our cast. Placing the lives and struggles of people above the action and hijinks is what makes MI-5 stand out against other intricate fast paces American series like Alias and 24.

Gadgets are useful, I’m sure, but I’m glad MI-5 places people first. This debut season premiered in early 2002, so terrorism plays a significant role in this organization’s lives. But then, that’s all in a day’s work, isn’t it? In only six episodes this season, MI-5 establishes the nature of a post 9/11 world while giving us healthy complex storylines and solid character interactions. Not just about the folks at home, the twisted guest stars are also written and played as charismatic, intelligent, and dangerous folks. Remember, a villain never thinks he or she is a villain. His cause is always right and worth any cost. We’d like to think the gang at MI-5 is always right, and the bad guys are all terrorists, but the multilevel characters don’t make things so cut and dry for the viewer. In addition to a lot of frank grey where there should be black and white, MI-5 doesn’t shy away from international intrigue, politics, or red tape.
I didn’t know who most of the cast was to start, and in some ways, that’s a good thing. Macfadyen’s Tom may be a section leader, but he is just an average Joe trying to keep his home life together away from work. He could be you; he could be me. Sure, we don’t have to hide our job from our families and do it all under a fake name, but we certainly understand Tom’s conundrum. Likewise, Zoe goes through the same ill balance on the job. From using womanly ways to living in a one-room apartment, we feel her difficulties. Romances come in just enough, and the men versus women dynamics at MI-5 are just right.

I enjoyed seeing Jenny Agutter (Logan’s Run) again as Section K master Tessa Phillips. She and boss Harry Pearce (Peter Firth, That’s Life, Equus) add veteran acting and maturity to MI-5. They know what has to be done for the team, their country, the world, themselves; but that doesn’t make those decisions any easier. The personal prices they’ve paid are high as well. Only David Oyelowo as Danny seems a little unrealistic. Why is the new take on the ‘token black guy’ to make him the ‘technological expert token black guy’? Are all British Black Guys tech wizzes? I have to say, it is strange to me to hear black men with British accents as it is, and naturally, MI-5 isn’t called Spooks in the US for the term’s ill racial use. Thankfully, House star Hugh Laurie makes the most of a two-episode stint as the slick head of MI-6.
Now, before anyone panics at all this British talk, I must say, the accents and wording on MI-5 aren’t that bad. Usually I like to have subtitles just in case, but the voices are pretty easy on the American ear, and there isn’t even a lot of British slang for us to translate, either. Even though it’s a British show and as such says and shows more than US audiences are used to, MI-5 is fairly tame against big action yarns. There are frank deaths onscreen and a few curse words, however, so maybe tweens and younger should wait until they are old enough to appreciate MI-5 and all its complexities. The emotional toll for watching is heavy, but worth every minute.

The series’ seasons are short and the DVDs are affordable enough for quick viewing. Blessedly, online options and rentals are available as well. The rest of MI-5 is hogging my Instant Watch, and I’m looking forward to converting my Husband. There’s just something special about a television program that makes you think about where you are in the big picture. TV that makes you smarter is rare indeed, and I think I’m addicted to MI-5. Regardless of what you call it, intelligent audiences on both sides of the Atlantic can and should enjoy MI-5.

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