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On May 24, the eight-year run of 24 will come to an end.  Since November of 2001, U.S. viewers as well as millions around the world have watched Jack Bauer save the world one more time—and all in a twenty-four hour time period.  The fast-paced, twisting, often tortuous plots kept audiences returning week after week, sometimes even after long pauses between series. How will we survive without 24???

Sherrylee and I discovered  MI-5 a couple of years ago, and through our Netflix subscription have rented seven out of the eight series made. Let me recommend it to you as replacement therapy.

MI-5 is the U.S. title for the British series produced by BBC One titled Spooks.  (MI-5 is the counter-terrorism group of the Special Intelligence Services (SIS) in the UK.  James Bond worked for MI-6—the international branch.) First airing just a few months after 24 began, it met with the same kind of reception in the UK, but not always for the same reasons.  Since you are undoubtedly familiar with 24 if you are reading this, let me mention some of the key areas where MI-5 is different.

MI-5 is not constrained by the ticking clock. One of the reasons for the demise of 24 is the ticking clock. The show has always strained credibility because everything had to be accomplished within twenty-four hours. Kim was kidnapped two or three times in the first 24 hours. Jack is often shot and tortured and must recover instantaneously for the clock to continue.  Freeing the scripts from this artificial restraint allows for much greater complexity.

MI-5 develops more deeply the personal lives of the characters. The attempts to give Jack feelings and/or romantic involvements have been mostly just distractions from the action. MI-5, on the other hand, actually uses the virtual impossibility of serious relationships with anyone outside of the spook business as an artful way of developing even secondary characters and making the audience care about them. From the first season until the last, the private lives of characters are played out against the backdrop of terrorist threats to Great Britain in a very satisfactory way.

MI-5 is an ensemble of characters, not just a support team for one main character. In certain episodes of MI-5, it might be the Jack Bauer counterpart Tom Quinn (Matthew Macfadyen) or Adam Carter (Rupert Penry-Jones) that the plot revolves around, but other episodes will focus more on the Director of MI-5 Harry Pierce (Peter Firth) or it might even be a lesser character like Jo Portman (Miranda Raison). More interesting characters provide more storyline possibilities, which are exploited very effectively in MI-5. And since danger is at the heart of the profession, the series continues then courageously, even when major characters are suddenly. . . . killed.

MI-5 explores more realpolitik. 24 has been good with exploring some moral questions that combatants always face, i.e., can bad things accomplish the greater good, the use of torture for obtaining information, the question of personal responsibility to do right in the face of orders to do wrong?  MI-5 explores all of these topics as well, but is also able to ask questions about specific government policies, like extraordinary rendition, covert operations of terror in other countries, political cover-ups, even economic policies and their effect on international relations. Some of the most interesting episodes have been the racial conflicts reflected in UK society, especially home-grown radical Islamists.

I will warn you that Americans, often referred to as the Brits “special friends” or their “cousins,” are rarely portrayed in a favorable light. If you are squeamish about how even our foreign friends really feel about us, you might best stick with reruns of 24. On the other hand, if you can bear it, it is an interesting lesson in perspective.

MI-5 is currently running on many PBS channels, but I suggest you either purchase the series online or get it through a subscription service like Netflix.   My one piece of advice, however, is to use the subtitle routine on the disk, at least until your ear becomes accustomed to the accents.  I do believe the British series will do a brilliant job of weaning you off of Jack Bauer—so you can survive to fight another day!

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