Peek into the top-secret files of two spy agencies
'Realism' is the code word for two new shows
Now that updates on the national threat level are as routine on TV as the stock-market ticker scroll, programs about intelligence agencies of all stripes are as hot as a classified file.
Next week alone, audiences can go behind the scenes on A&E for a fictional view of the British equivalent of the CIA, MI-5 (home of the shaken but not stirred über-spy, James Bond). Then they can tune into PBS for a fly-on-the-wall documentary about the FBI.
Both shows offer what their producers call a much more realistic look at the life-and-death decisions made by "ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances."
"When you watch this show," says "MI-5" creator David Wolstencroft, "you really do not know whether these people who are in jeopardy are going to be all right at the end of the day. The jobs these people really do ... are full of dread and danger and mortal fear, and we wanted to dramatize the real sense of visceral fear these people would go through."
As part of the realistic tone, the drama series also features scenes of disquieting violence, including torture. (The program debuts Tuesday on A&E at 9 p.m.)
For the FBI documentary, (which airs on Wednesday, check local listings) the National Geographic team got an unprecedented level of access to the agency and its director, Robert Mueller. The camera crew camped out in the FBI's crisis center, and sat in on a closed-door profiling session. All this is in order to give people a better sense of how the agency actually functions, says Assistant FBI Director Cassandra Chandler.
"We can't shield the entire Bureau in secrecy and have people wondering who we are and what we are, and what we do," she says. "[This film] talks about the good, the bad, and the ugly, but it tells it in a balanced view."
"MI-5" creator Wolstencroft, a Cambridge University alum, says his interest in his country's intelligence agency began during college. The prestigious school is a well-known recruiting ground, he says, adding only half jokingly that he often wondered why he wasn't recruited - and what it would take to attract that sort of attention.
But since the chosen ones are sworn to secrecy, this is not a question with an easy answer.
"I have this really bright friend who comes to parties now," he says. "And while all of us are bragging and talking openly to impress each other with stories about what we do and where we are in our careers, he always downplays things like, oh a trip to China, which he recently took to, um, go skiing." He rolls his eyes and says, "China to ski? Right."
The import, which was called "Spooks" in its home country (producers say the title had too many racial overtones for the US), faces special challenges because of the British Official Secrets Act. All MI-5 agents must sign this act, which restricts what agents are allowed to disclose, either during or after their careers.
Producers say they create story lines that they run by former agency operatives, who give hints about what works and what doesn't. But, he says, the show is as much about the evolution of the characters as it is about plot lines.
"We provide the narrative satisfaction of a great, Bond-like ... story," Wolstencroft says, "but we want to make the stories psychologically intimate. We want to see the impact of these career choices on people's real lives."
For those who want to know more about the inner workings of an American intelligence agency, "The FBI" opens with Mr. Mueller being briefed on a sleeper Al Qaeda cell whose members have been arrested the night before.
The show accompanies Mueller in his armored vehicle as he speeds over to the White House for his daily briefing with the president. The team also records his testimony before a congressional hearing on the FBI's performance on Sept. 11. The cameras are present when he first hears that the D.C.-area sniper had been caught.
Anxious to be more than a cheerleading promotional, producers also detail the agency's past.
"It would be impossible to tell the story of the FBI without talking about their checkered past," says producer Jaime Hellman. Beyond that, he says, he wanted the story to show what really makes the FBI tick: people.
"The agents who work every day are real human beings," Mr. Hellman says. "They're not the people that we see on television. They have real responsibilities, they have real fears.... Many times these people go out ... not knowing if they'll be coming home that night."
Both programs also address a new post-Sept. 11 reality: the need for international cooperation between security agencies. "9/11 taught all of us something valuable, that no one group, no one law-enforcement piece had all the answers or can do the job completely," says the FBI's Ms. Chandler.
This reality, she adds, has begun to produce a change in the super-secret culture of intelligence gathering.
"There has to be interconnection, there has to be a working together every single day," she says. "And it's not just changing here in the United States. We're also changing with law-enforcement partners and intelligence partners around the world."