Known as Spooks in England, MI-5: Volume 4 (or perhaps more accurately: How I Learned to Start Hating America and Love the Terrorists) is a glossy, hollow, morally wishy-washy, politically correct spy series from the U.K. that's been getting some notice here on the BBC America cable channel. Comparisons to Fox's 24 are inevitable (24 premiered in 2001, seven months before MI-5), but MI-5: Volume 4 pales next to that super-charged rollercoaster ride. Whereas 24's emphasis has always been on moving the story forward, and never letting its foot off the accelerator, MI-5: Volume 4 can't seem to shake up its relatively pokey, predictable espionage plots. Equally disconcerting, at least for this reviewer, is the series' almost pathological need to slam the United States of America every five minutes during an episode.
You see, according to the producers and writers of MI-5, the real terrorists in this world are...you. That's right. Americans. The people who are actually blowing up things all over the world are to be pitied, because they were driven to their acts by...you. In episode after episode, the single unifying theme to the individual MI-5 episodes is that America is dangerous, America is stupid, America is a bully, America is arrogant, and America is actively pushing, through dirty tricks, peaceful political dissenters into the role of terrorists, all in an effort to invade each country in the Middle East in aid of lining the pockets of the Christian right and the oil barons. If those are your political beliefs as well, then MI-5 is your Citizen Kane. But if you like to be entertained when you watch TV, and not lectured to (particularly when the subject of the lecture is: "You're a stupid, dangerous child, you silly America"), I suggest you carefully step over MI-5 and don't get any of it on your shoe.
MI-5 follows the fairly standard TV espionage format (started decades ago in Mission: Impossible) of having a crack team of agents who handle seemingly every single threat to their nation's safety. MI-5, the British equivalent to the F.B.I., handles all domestic terrorism threats, and the five or six agents in MI-5 manage quite nicely to wrap up each near-catastrophe without the aid of hundreds of other intelligence personnel. And naturally, the agents fall along the standard stereotypes that have been well established through decades of similar TV series and movies. There's the steely-eyed, blank-faced lead hero Adam Carter (Rupert Penry-Jones) who sometimes "breaks the rules." There's the crusty head of the team, Harry Pearce (Peter Firth), who tries to keep the young bucks under control. Then there's Fiona Carter (Olga Sosnovska), married to Adam, cool as ice, deadly and beautiful. Next up, Ruth Evershed (Nicola Walker), the less-beautiful female member of the squad, and therefore, its Earth Mother consciousness (naturally, she also has romantic feelings for Harry). Keeping careful watch on the computer screens is techie dork Malcolm (Hugh Simon). To add political and social tension to the team, we have Zafar (Raza Jaffrey), the required minority member of the team. And finally, we have the total viewer surrogate: Jo (Miranda Raison), the innocent, single, attractive young journalism student who is magically transformed into cub agent, and brought into the inner sanctum of MI-5 (no experience required, evidently). Does any of that sound vaguely familiar? If you've watched even a smidgin of TV in your life, it's painfully obvious that MI-5 is indeed all-too familiar.
And all of that familiarity might have been okay, if the shows at least moved. But instead, we either get the famed British reserve, or more likely, an effort not to offend, with action scenes that pale in comparison to even the most average American actioner. There's a whole lot of talk in MI-5: Volume 4, and precious little action. If the producers want to noodle around with political and social ideas, fine. But don't try and pass the show off as a thrill ride when you forgot to put in the thrills. I swear to you, there's a scene in one of the episodes where Adam is addressing the troops, informing them that they have a long night ahead of them, and very little time to find a dangerous suspect. In an American movie or show, that scene would have probably been followed by some fast paced scenes showing the team in action. Instead, we get a mini-lecture by Adam on the importance of the team keeping their blood sugar levels up. He also helpfully tells them what foods to eat (note to self: when tracking terrorists, eat fruits). To bring the point home, we even see him chomp into an apple from a plate of fruit that's being passed around. I'm sorry, but I thought I was watching a kick-ass spy show, not an episode of Oprah.
Perhaps in an effort to prop up the dubious notion that this particular spy show is "complex" and "ambiguously modern," the producers introduce the neat script trick of having all opposing political and moral arguments thrown out on the table (a scheme confirmed by several of the actors in an episode commentary). I suspect that way, the producers can claim fairness in covering all angles of a particular argument. So if the episode happens to express disdain for say...America (what a shock), one lone character pipes up and says, "Maybe the Americans were right to do that!" Of course, that character never has the last word, and a chorus of dissenting viewpoints ring out. In other words, MI-5 is just as solidly one-sided as any political screed, and any veneer of "even-handedness" is merely a smoke screen to blind the audience.
It's a curious political viewpoint, too, let me tell you. If you think you know where this show's politics lie (here's a hint: left of center), you'd be right. Harry, the venerable head of the team, laments in one show about the loss of his radical, socialist innocence (that's right, comrade). According to the show's writers, the most dangerous forces on earth are Christian fundamentalists and political right-wingers -- particularly when they're from America (the first episode details the efforts of a radical right-wing American terrorist group setting off bombs in London -- yeah, we're London's greatest threat). The show's de facto villain, Juliet Shaw (Anna Chancellor) is called a right wing nut, straight up. And of course, she shows her tail and hooves by actually daring to work with and (gasp!) sympathize with the Americans! (9/11 is often referenced, disgracefully, as an excuse for us to go hog wild in an effort to control the universe).
Now if this all sounds pretty good to you, fair enough. But be careful what you find "correct" about this show's political bent, because what this show champions in the name of "political correctness" and liberal politics, should scare the daylights out of you. To start on a small note, I find it amusing that the agents don't carry guns, when the perps always do. That may be why they always manage to escape the agents' clutches several times during the show, usually causing some unnecessary deaths, before finally coming a cropper with the law. Hypocritical, though, is the series' constant carping about the reach of America's surveillance in an effort to fight terrorism. This smug stance is made hysterical when in reality, the U.K. has CCTV cameras trained up the arse of every Britisher over the age of five - cameras that the agents use with impunity in every episode. At one point, the show almost convinced me that it might be getting sensible, when Adam "accidentally" drops a suspect off a roof onto his head during an interrogation (the suspect knew where a bomb would go off that would kill hundreds of innocent civilians). Of course, we had the obligatory crying by a witness who saw the act, but Adam - quite rightly - said, "So what?" when questioned about it. All good there, but I had forgotten that earlier, the episode had made a big deal about castigating America for the "horrors" of Abu Ghraib - of course, no terrorists were killed by U.S. interrogators in Abu Ghraib, but small points like that don't fit in with the producers' political Muzak. But most disturbing of all - and a story that should chill all those progressives out there - was the episode where the MI-5 group decided that a legitimate political party, legally charted and recognized, needed to be destroyed from within by dirty tricks and other totally illegal means, just because England didn't like that group's politics (Harry actually blackmails a homosexual politician to help the group, threatening to rat him out to the public and his wife if he refuses. Did you hear that, Rosie?). Now, the producers made it easy for the viewer to agree, by making the party a group of racists (whites, of course; is there any other kind?). And of course, one lone member says maybe we're not doing democracy justice by destroying it to save it. Predictably, no heed is paid to this, because the producers don't believe in that argument, either. It's a potentially terrifying prospect, but the producers don't give it a second thought, perhaps because they believe oppresive means are okay coming from the "correct" political viewpoint (thanks, Chairman Mao!). I guess the producers of MI-5: Volume 4 forgot that fascism can come in any political guise.
The 1.78:1 widescreen, enhanced for 16x9 TVs video image for MI-5: Volume 4 is terrifically crisp and clean, with beautiful gray and blue tones dominating the color scheme.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround sound track gives some nice expanse and separation during the all-too infrequent explosions.
There are a boatload of extras for MI-5: Volume 4, including a full-length commentary track for each of the ten, one-hour episodes, featuring actors and creative personnel from the series. If you really like the show, then the commentaries will be welcome additions. Disc one has the 37 minute An Elusive Peace - Series 4 Documentary, which features interviews with the main stars and some of the creative talents behind the show. Disc four has Regnum Defende: An Interview with Andrew Woodhead: Series Producer, which lasts nine minutes. And finally, disc five has A View from the Grid: Interview with Episode Director Julian Simpson, a 22 minute documentary featuring the director discussing what it's like to shoot an episode of the show.
Hey, if you like America-bashing, who's to stop you from watching MI-5: Volume 4? It's a free country (just don't let MI-5 know; they may decide they don't like you, and you know what happens next...). If MI-5: Volume 4 was in the least bit kick-ass in its action scenes, I wouldn't care so much about its psychological and moral hand-wringing. If I sound a little peeved at the tone of the series; forgive me -- I actually don't take it that seriously. After all, it's only television (and therefore, ultimately, entirely disposable). But what does bother me about MI-5: Volume 4 is its inherent dishonesty. I'm not referring to its specific political stance, but to its phoney efforts to be "complex," when in reality, it's just moral fence-sitting, invoking a paralyzing, and ultimately boring, moral equivalency that has nothing to do with ambiguity, and everything to do with calculation. Skip it.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.