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I Spy

May 26, 2006

Katie and I finished watching a BBC show simply called ‘Spy‘ on PBS earlier this week, and I wanted to say a few words about it. It was a ‘reality’ show, but it ended up being quite good. The concept of the show is that they take 8 people ‘off the street’ (ie: cast them from a pool of hundreds) and put them through some of the same training elements that intelligence officers do. They learn some tradecraft: following people, using human resources, lying, etc. They then put these concepts to use in missions against real, unaware targets out in the real world.

Missions included getting into an area they shouldn’t technically have been allowed into to get photos, getting a stranger to help them do something vaguely illegal, and monitoring a ‘blind drop’ (a secret message). The emphasis of the story is not on interpersonal conflicts, as it so often is in other shows, but on the efficacy of these individuals as they try to complete the tasks. A lot of these people are obviously not cut out for this sort of thing, and over the course of the show they fail pretty hard.

An especially interesting element of the show was the slow pace of participant removal. This was the last week of the show, and at the beginning there was still a full half of the people in the game (four). The last ‘episode’ was really two episodes, two hours of the show. Over the course of the two hours, there was an extended mission that tested the boundaries of the reality tv genre, as well as the participants.

They split the four players up into two teams of two, and then set them against a series of three throwaway missions. These were similar to the missions they’d done in the past (tail a target, plant a listening device, etc.), but the difference here was that there was no way they could succeed. After three failed missions, they took all four aside and told them all they’d been dismissed from the show. They were given a day or two to relax and think they were going home, and then were brought to a press relations office for the production company. They were told they were there to have a final talk with the company’s PR guy.

The setup here is that each of them had seen (at some point during the show) an email left ‘lying around’ that indicated one of their trainers had been involved in a sex scandal. The PR guy offered each of them a large sum of money for details on this supposed scandal, whatever they knew, however little. Two of them did a good job saying they basically had no knowledge of the event. One said she’d heard the rumor but didn’t really confirm it. The last began volunteering information even before the PR guy offered him money; He said ‘I hate that woman’.

Guess who got kicked off?

With only three left, they were sent on their final mission. It involved a very in-depth roleplaying situation. One player headed to Gibraltar as an advance team. The other two followed the target from Britain to Gibraltar, and all three observed a meeting between the target and a mysterious stranger. The target was supposedly a scientist, selling secrets to foreign terrorists. The terrorist contact gave the scientist tickets to Morocco, and the players had to scramble to get to Africa in time to catch the scientist. Once there, they conducted surveillance as she met with contacts. One of the players did a terrible job observing her, and was removed from the show.

The last two participants ended up tracking the scientist to a foreign locale, and the twist the show throws at them abroad was just brilliant. I won’t give it away here, because I think it’s worth watching to experience. Like the above-mentioned meta-mission, it throws the players outside of the closed-in reality show mindset and forces them to actually think for themselves. The show was intelligently paced, beautifully shot, and actually managed to create some level of suspense and sympathy between the viewers and the participants. I’m not sure if this is a hallmark of all UK reality shows (I doubt it), or just a result of the subject matter they were dealing with here. PBS is running reruns of the show into the summer, and I highly recommend giving an episode or two a watch.

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