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Monday, October 17, 2005

Sesame Spy Street

On Saturday, I watched a taped episode of the BBC- produced "reality series", "Spy".

"Spy" is the true story of 8 student spies picked to live in a safe house and have their student spy lives taped to find out what happens when student spies stop being polite and start getting real. The candidates, chosen from applicants from all over the United Kingdom, compete in a variety of challenging exercises. Per the usual contest format, each week a student spy who cannot make the grade is eliminated - and made to wear a yellow star.

I confess - no, I don't confess, I say loudly and proudly - that my hair stood on end when I saw at the bottom of the screen a logo for KCET - L.A.'s revered Public Television station. A friend of mine who grew up in the L.A. Public School system - a man now with expertise in several areas - told me that everything he should have learned at school, he learned from Public Television, from PBS's first-rate children's programming in the 70's and fine documentaries of the 80's & 90's. I realize that what runs on PBS is not up to me. It's up to Merck and the Chubb Group of Innovative America Feeders and the Ford Foundation of Happiness and so forth. But I wish "Spy" could have stayed over on BBC America, or even Fox.

We watched "Spy" after an episode of "America's Next Top Model". The supermodel show is the better one by far, because of higher production values and the mesmerizing, heart-rending hunger that each contestant oozes. And the stakes appear to be higher on "Top Model" - more life & death. But "Spy" is fascinating for many reasons:

- The Briefing Room is very dramatically lit, providing a day-time soap opera tension that really adds flavor.

- The camera-work is worthy of Cirque du Soleil. An entire camera crew manages to follow spy candidates through several high-tension missions, which include theft, breaking & entering, covert surveillance, etc. But the crew never manages to complicate things. You would think a daylight break-in with a camera crew in pursuit would really put a spy candidate at risk. But not with these chaps - James Bond stuff!!

- Sandy Williams, who plays "Q" - though not quite in the caliber of Judy Dench - does a very convincing job of portraying a woman. I think he's basing his performance on Chief Inspector Tennyson. Can't wait to see what he does with the role in later episodes when he gets more confidence.

- The secret service trainers, who critique the student spies' work, are superb at seething and looking dangerous. But you can see why they teach spying and rather than practice it, because, left to walk the streets, these twitching, grimacing cranks would be picked up by a Psychiatric Emergency Team in no time flat.

- The show really gets one's creative juices flowing. "I could do better than that! In fact, I'd make a great spy! Hmm. I wonder..." droned over and over through my head as I watched. I have little doubt that everyone who watches the program has some version of this thought.

I had fun watching the eager little spy beavers trying their best. I rooted for the ones I liked, wished humiliation on the ones I did not, and grieved the death of a historic public service organization throughout, and I was pestered - and still am this morning - by the relentless intonations of a Welshman way in the back of my mind. I have since identified the Welshman as Richard Burton, and his words are from the bitter speech at the end of John Le Carre's "The Spy Who Came In From The Cold" (1965):

"What the hell do you think spies are? Moral philosophers measuring everything they do against the word of God or Karl Marx? They're not. They're just a bunch of seedy, squalid bastards like me. Little men, drunkards, queers, hen-pecked husbands, Civil Servants playing Cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten little lives. Do you think they sit like monks in a cell, balancing right against wrong? Yesterday I would have killed Mundt because I thought him evil and an enemy. But not today. Today he's evil, and my friend."

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Why this: "But I wish 'Spy' could have stayed over on BBC America, or even Fox"?

Is it that you feel that "Spy" is not worthy of PBS or t'other way 'round?

- By Blogger Rob, at Tue Oct 18, 07:50:00 PM GMT+1  

Right. Exactly. Not the first part of what you said. The other part.

- By Blogger Neal Romanek, at Wed Oct 19, 12:46:00 AM GMT+1  

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