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TV Spies

Spies on the tube: air-conditioned supermen

The Avengers: Steed and Mrs. Peel face a menacing aerobics class.The Avengers face a menacing aerobics class.


If Dr. Freud is to be believed and childhood influences really are the most important factor in shaping personality, then what can we guess about this year's graduating class? It, more than any previous generation's, waS raised on television. And what message did that black box convey? My memories, at least, are of spies, spies and more spies, all over the tube from the early sixties on. Beginning with programs like Danger Man, the list you could compile demonstrates nicely the old adage, "Nothing succeeds like excess." For example: Secret Agent (serious spies), The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (satirical spies), Get Smart (stupid spies), The Prisoner (captured spies), Mission: Impossible (treacherous spies), Honey West (female spies), and so on. The interesting thing about most of these programs is the set of values they taught us. In their worlds, coolness under pressure counted for more than being right or wrong. And anything that gave the hero the upper hand, be it a fist fight, a shoot-out or a wire-tapping, was o.k. simply because it gave him the upper hand. The Man from U.N.C.L.E., for example, could get out of tight spots not because he was right, but because he was more clever than his foe. Not that there were many moral questions. In almost all of these shows, the good guy could always be clearly discerned, whether he was dashing Napoleon Solo of the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement, or avenging John Steed of the British Ministry of Defense. In both cases, the hero always got the girl and never expressed any doubts about his role in life. More importantly, he rarely lost control of a situation, and when he did, he quickly got it back again.In The Avengers and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. this fantasy-like situation was aided by fantasy-like adventures. Steed (Patrick Macnee) and his partner, Mrs. Peel (Diana Rigg) , for instance, faced such improbable situations as a huge killer pussycat, a department store which was actually a big bomb, a man-eating plant out to devour England, and a town where murder was the way of life. And in The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Solo dealt with a huge stink bomb, murderous mechani cal men, modern-day pirates, menacing amazons, and numerous other nefarious oddities. In each of these situations, the protagonist was both self-assured and clever, which was in· some ways good, and in others, bad. This taught us the necessity for coolness under pressure, but also made problem situations appear too simple. The dilemmas faced by Steed and Solo were certainly not normal ones, and, for that matter, neither were the characters. Were these, then, the proper heroes to emulate-people who led impossible lives and made it look so easy? Couldn't the emulation of such heroes lead to frustration when we grew up and found it wasn't so? Were The Avengers and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. teaching us values that didn't apply to the real world? At least one show seemed to think so. Patrick McGoohan's Secret Agent (and its sequel, The Prisoner) also presented a cool hero. But where Steed and Solo always knew what they'wanted and who was who, McGoohan's John Drake didn't. He was something of an anti-hero, questioning his superior's values and often being openly skeptical of the stated "necessity" for what he was doing. He would call a spade a spade: wire-tapping was wire-tapping, assassination, murder, and we could often see the effects of both on real people.

McGoohan as spy: complex.McGoohan as spy: complex.

It was this emphasis on the real that made Secret Agent the best of the spy lot and one of the more . instructive TV adventure series of the '60's. By showing the sordid side, and stressing the realistic, McGoohan took the glamour out of the spy business, but not all of the heroism. We could believe in and respect his character because he wasn't perfect and he wasn't completely happy. Drake tried and (especially in The Prisoner) could fail. But even in the face of that failure, he kept his wits and his principles about him. He could feel compassion, but he could also subjugate it for a higher ideal. In short, he was a real person. And so were the bad guys, who were often charming and not all bad, and the good guys who were often nasty and not all good. Secret Agent, then, gave us microcosm of the world at large b its presentation of gray heroes an villains who tried to use their head and not their fists to get them out of tight spots. And even when they succeeded, they weren't always sure of the value of their success. It is this uncertainty that make Secret Agent the most instructive of the entertaining spy shows (and The Avengers and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. were certainly entertaining). was the only that tried to teach us what to expect in the world: not simple problems which could be solved with a joke or a gun, but complex ones that sometimes had no satisfying solutions. McGoohan realized that only through a realistic appraisal of the world could one hope to change it. Did his message get across? Will the '70's class benefit from the '6(J spies? Tune in next week, or next year, for the answer . . .