Is ‘MI-5’ Too Good for US Television?

By Rob Patterson

What in the hell is wrong with American television programmers? Sure, I have written rather enthusiastically about how today is perhaps a, if not the, Golden Age of Quality Television (albeit amidst piles of crap). But what I simply cannot fathom is how among all the cable channels out there, not one can commit to giving the British series MI-5—known in England as Spooks—the support, promotion and airing it deserves.

Simply put, MI-5—which I have written about before—is as good as television gets. It also deals with the salient geopolitical issues of our day with a hardnosed dramatic courage that nothing else on television comes close to. And when it comes to terrorism and TV, I’ll admit that I’ve never seen 24, yet all the good reports from those I trust still can’t convince me it comes even close to MI-5 in smarts, style, class and dealing with the hot-button issues that surround terrorism and national security with unflinching dramatic force and finesse.

I just finished watching season five of the show on DVD and am blown away at how the series keeps getting better, sharper, braver and more dynamic and daring, as well as closer and closer to scenarios that could actually occur within the government, the populace, the underground world of terrorists, and the internal security agency for which it is named whose operatives it follows. I rented it as I got tired of waiting for BBC America to show it, if not on the actual channel, than maybe via On Demand.

MI-5 was shown for its first four seasons on A&E, which started allowing its airings to peter out by the time it got into the fourth season, airing it at odd times, seemingly wedged into its schedule as little more than an afterthought. BBC has MI-5 on its website, and for a few months now that page has read “No Scheduled Shows.” Even in an entertainment world that can bury gold where an audience will rarely find it, the way this gem has been barely shown much less touted here in America is a new level of quality being the victim of television executive apathy.

I’d at least like to think that maybe the suits fear that MI-5 is just too close to the reality of fighting terror on the home front for American viewers—and for the majority of TV watchers, it probably is—but I imagine that lethargy, lack of vision and just plain old stupidity are more likely the cause here. Whatever the case, MI-5 is to me “must see TV” for anyone interested in the state of the world today. But even just seeing it is hard enough.

And what a show: The multiracial cast with strong female characters, its courage to show all the government corruptions and machinations that work against security from terrorism, the unsentimental way it kills off key and very likable characters. And to me, in season five even more so than ever before, the way Harry Pierce, the head of MI-5’s anti-terrorism section—played with a note-perfect subtlety by Peter Firth—stands as a bulwark against the meddling of the government while acting as a firm yet supportive father figure to his team. And then there’s the way the show continually experiments with television’s dramatic conventions from season to season.

Oh well. In the UK, MI-5 has already aired its sixth season—in which all 10 shows are episodic for the first time—and the seventh is already being developed. Who knows whether I will even get to see them, a prospect that depresses me indeed, as the show has engaged me like few others.

But the true shame is that MI-5 is so steeped in realpolitik of the world we live in today, and such damned good, compelling if not gripping entertainment, that if a substantial number of people were to see it, the way the show deals with the most urgent issues of our day might just spark higher dialog and better thinking about how to deal with them. Fat chance of that. Gee, maybe this age of TV isn’t quite as golden as I thought it was.

Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email

From The Progressive Populist, November 1, 2008

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