Viewers suffering “Alias” or “24” withdrawal can get a satisfying fix of action and intrigue with this intelligent, suspenseful drama from A&E by way of BBC1. “MI-5” is a heart-pounding look into the U.K.’s counterterrorism department inside the security intelligence agency. If you’re expecting James Bond, or something out of a John LeCarre novel, forget about it. This is not your parents’ spy story.
“MI-5” Section B is populated with young, sophisticated and, at times, untested agents, well-versed in universal global issues and cutting-edge technology. This eight-part series features mostly unknown actors, although screen vets Jenny Agutter (“An American Werewolf in London”), Peter Firth (“Amistad”) and Hugh Laurie (“Stuart Little”) have significant roles.
Firth stars as Harry Pearce, the head of MI-5. A tough old bird who specializes in smoothing ruffled department feathers, Harry puts a lot of faith in his cracker-jack senior officer Tom Quinn (Matthew Macfadyen). Tom is a slick agent with a heavy conscience who’s keenly aware of what’s at stake with every case, both globally and professionally. Tom has fallen in love with Ellie (Ester Hall) a young mother and restaurateur who thinks he’s somebody else entirely.
His team of junior agents, including the ambitious Zoe Reynolds (Keeley Hawes) and surveillance expert Danny Hunter (David Oyelowo), aid Tom in the good fight. Also on staff is the cynical 20-year vet Tessa Phillips (Agutter), who’s willing to make a bold move to get the departmental upper hand even if it is a compromise of ethics.
The show manages to retain all of the excitement and suspense this kind of career produces while exploring the day-to-day workings of such a department. Executive producers scripted several of the first episodes before Sept. 11, but the issues are frighteningly timely.
Premiere seg, “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” follows an elaborate undercover assignment in which MI-5 is following an American pro-life terrorist who has taken the battle to the British Isles.
Writer David Wolstencroft displays a knack for rapid-fire dialogue, a la Aaron Sorkin. But unlike “The West Wing” or even “The Agency,” which spend a great deal of time pontificating rather than taking a stand, “MI-5” has a direct approach. The series makes no bones about U.S. political issues, particularly the death penalty, and addresses anti-American sentiments without resorting to Uncle Sam-bashing.
The actors seem to be ideal matches for their characters, with a good deal of emphasis placed on Macfadyen. An appealing, capable actor, he’s the serious British equivalent of John Cusack — wry, smart and attractive but not too good looking.
Still, show’s production values reflect a different standard, although not necessarily a lower one. “MI-5’s” office set has strange revolving doors a little too reminiscent of Dr. Who, and the music is an ill-fitting techno pop mix. Otherwise the series’ various directors make great use of the scenic British countryside and gray weather.
Credit also should be given for depicting the sometimes grim realities of the spy business as well as the explosive action without expensive pyrotechnics and special effects common in American-made shows.
Make no mistake, however: “MI-5” is not beyond a grisly death scene. One particular episode features a scene that makes the “Alias” thumb-cutting incident look like “Romper Room.”