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Tuesday, January 6, 2009

PBA 30's thriller series "MI-5" profiles spies like us

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American television so often takes its cues from English and European shows, including the original version of “The Office” and many reality series, that it’s refreshing to see a British show influenced by one from the states. The BBC One spy drama “MI-5,” debuting on Atlanta’s PBA 30 at 10 p.m. Fri., Jan. 9, clearly picked up a thing or two from Fox’s counterterrorism series “24,” such as the use of split-screens and a thrumming soundtrack.

“24” (which begins its seventh season on Jan. 11) already had episodes in the can when the Sept. 11 attacks occurred before its debut in November of 2001. “MI-5” premiered in May of 2002 and had the chance to adjust its focus to specifically reflect the post-9/11 geopolitical landscape. Compared to a soft-spoken, character-driven police procedural such as Helen Mirren’s “Prime Suspect,” “MI-5” is much more glitzy, action-oriented and “American” in its sensibility, although Tom Quinn (Frost/Nixon’s Matthew Macfayden), the hero of the show’s first seasons, proves more sardonic and less intense than Keifer Sutherland’s tormented Jack Bauer on “24.”

Called “Spooks” in England and “MI-5” in the United States and France, the show also reveals a sense of humor and awareness of real-world foibles completely absent from “24.” The “MI-5” pilot involves the search for an American anti-abortion zealot who plans an English bombing campaign. When Tom’s colleagues try to put the terrorist’s flat under electronic surveillance when no one’s home, they accidentally let the cat out in the rain, and not only have to track down the stray pet, but dry it off, lest the bad guys get wise to their presence. The show itself isn’t free of missteps, either: The actress playing the pro-life American affects a ridiculous Southern accent that sounds like a mixture of Texas, Florida, Scotland and late-night drunk.

In between taut cloak-and-dagger sequences, “MI-5” humanizes the lives of covert intelligence operatives. The early episodes have Tom falling in love with a civilian who only knows him by a cover identity instead of his real name and profession, a predicament mined for wry pathos. The series’ seventh season is scheduled to begin in late 2009, giving local viewers plenty of time to play catch-up. “MI-5” has a reputation for sudden, shocking character deaths, so first-timers willing to sign up for this take on British intelligence should expect to be both shaken and stirred.

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