"Am I five? What kind of stupid question is that?" asks Judge Adam Arseneau.
Our reviews of MI-5: Volume 5 (published March 12th, 2008), MI-5: Volume 9 (published July 6th, 2011), MI-5: Volume 10 (published March 12th, 2012), and MI-5: Volume 1 (published February 12th, 2004) are also available.
Lying to friends. Dying for a stranger. Living with enemies. Lying for a living.
The hit British espionage show MI-5 has slowly been making its way to the American shores through BBC America and on DVD, wooing audiences with its taut storylines, fast-paced action and wry wit. Picture a British version of 24, and you would be pretty darn close to the mark: lots of lying, double-crossing, explosions, gunshots, and government agents running around like chickens trying to stop countless acts of terrorism from wrecking the country. Sounds fun, eh?
Facts of the Case
The Security Service (MI5, or simply "Five,") is the British equivalent of the FBI, a government organization responsible for protecting the security and safety of the country from threats external and internal. Unlike MI6 (home of the fictionalized James Bond and the equivalent of the CIA), which operates abroad, MI5's jurisdiction is strictly home soil, and they are the frontline defense against acts of terrorism in the UK. It's a busy job, make no mistake; for a tiny little island, Great Britain sure has a lot of enemies abroad and at home.
Season One ended on one of the tensest cliffhangers imaginable, with Tom locked outside his girlfriend's house, staring in helplessly, watching the timer on a bomb inside the house count down. Just as the counter reached zero, the screen faded white…and the season ended. It was intense, to say the least. Season Two picks up exactly where the show left off, watching the timer drop. And if you haven't seen the resolution to the first season, I sure as heck won't be spoiling it for you here.
All ten episodes from the second season are included here, uncut and unedited on this five-disc set:
• "Legitimate Targets"
• "The Nest of Angels"
• "Blood and Money"
• "I Spy Apocalypse"
• "Without Incident"
• "Strike Force"
• "The Seventh Division"
• "Smoke and Mirrors"
MI-5 (or Spooks, as it's known in its native land) is a perfect blend of gritty, raw, high-intensity drama smoothed out by the slick, laid-back suaveness that only the British can inject into international espionage. On the surface, the show really does bear a lot in common with 24, not only in subject matter but in style and execution, right down to the thumping music and split-screen transitions. However, one advantage the show holds over most American political / dramatic type shows is that MI-5 exists in the real world, not a fictionalized version. References are made to real people and events with legitimate news clips, al-Qaeda is a legitimate threat to the world, and the post 9/11 atmosphere clouds over the thoughts and minds of the global intelligence community. One episode features President Bush coming to London and the bustle and/or hustle of activity that swarms MI5 in preparation for his arrival, and all the people who actively want to kill him—something an American television series would never have the sack to show.
Though each episode is an island onto itself in terms of plot and structure (there are very few carryover story lines or operations), the slow, methodical and gripping character development keeps the series moving in a unified direction. MI-5 is one of those shows that gets better and better with each passing episode, and by the time the finale rolls for the season, the laboriously built-up tension can be cut with a knife. The finale is as gripping as television can get, and one of the finer episodes I have ever seen, of any show, ever.
MI-5 seeks to be as realistic as conceptually possible in terms of action, plot and technology, but now and again disbelief needs to be suspended in favor of good solid entertainment, giving way now and again to a more stylized and glamorous take on actual espionage. With the frequency that MI5 assigns the same three agents undercover into the field, into criminal organizations, banks, schools and every other institution imaginable for months on end, you would think the likelihood of somebody recognizing them would be a daily occurrence. Of course, this rarely happens, but oh well. It makes for darn good television.
We are allowed glimpses of the MI5 agents' personal lives, a luxury not often afforded on fast-moving shows like 24, and the exploration helps establish the characters as very fallible, flawed and imperfect—an honest and natural approach since the show strives for realism. The agents go out, they go drinking, they pick up men and women, try and date one another, and what have you. The tragedy for the characters, of course, is that these personal attempts to establish a small piece of individuality away from the spying, a tiny element of personal life in a sea of espionage and political intrigue, always end in failure, sometimes quite disastrously. It seems spies do not get to have personal lives, and furthermore, despite their noble profession, these are not perfect people—they lie, they cheat, they steal, one even has a history of credit card fraud, using his government connections to bolster his credit rating. The job takes a heavy toll upon their social and mental well-being, and many express the desire to return to the normality of civilian life, at any cost. This is the element that makes the characters in MI-5 so interesting, deep and layered. Ultimately for them, making such a choice, achieving any sense of normality of any kind is not a possibility for them. Whether they like it or not, the job is all they have, and all they really live for at the end of the day.
MI-5 and the similar The Wire have been developing into my favorite television shows currently on the air—ironic considering I get neither HBO nor the BBC. Nor basic cable, now that I think about it. These shows click on nearly every level required: great acting performances, fantastic story lines, well-written dialogue, gritty authenticity, and most importantly, unpredictability. Anyone who has seen the first season of MI-5 figured out very fast that the show has absolutely no problem doing the unexpected, or doing terrible, terrible, oh-god-so-terrible things to its main characters. If you have seen it, you know exactly what I mean. There is nothing worse than the cynical disbelief of an action/drama show where you know the main characters are going to escape without any harm, because hey, they're the good guys, and they have to come back and make a new season. Absolutely nothing in MI-5 is so clear-cut. It keeps you on your toes. It is the kind of show that makes your television reach out its electronic arms, grab you by the shoulders and shake you, shouting "Wake up! I'm not dead yet! Television is still good! See?"
The show looks great, presented in its native aspect ratio of 1.78:1, with excellent black levels and steely muted colors. The film has a tendency to get a bit of graininess during low-lighting sequences, but this does not detract from the look of the show; it gives it a particular stylized and urbane look to counterbalance the slickness of MI5 headquarters and all the suave spy stuff. The sharpness and clarity of the images is pleasing to the eye. Absolutely no complaints to be had on the visual department.
Likewise, audio response is fantastic. Both the Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo and the Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround track sound expansive and solid, with a constant thumping and sweeping of low-end frequencies throughout dramatic sequences that would make Bootsy Collins jealous. The surround track features excellent dynamic environmental effects and use of the rear channel, as well as an aggressive score that accompanies most scenes, but never so immersive to interfere with the dialogue, which is always clear and precise. Though both tracks sound very similar, the surround track has a pleasing warmth and richness that the Stereo 2.0 track seems to lack; the latter sounds a bit more trebly to my ears, a little tinnier and less responsive in the lower frequencies, but still well within acceptable limits.
The DVD extras are nothing short of exhaustive—with over two hours of material spread over five discs, trying to keep track of everything will certainly make you very, very tired. There is so much stuff to go through that it almost borders on the ludicrous. First, every episode corresponds to a small featurette featuring cast and crew discussing the individual episode at length, debating its merits, discussing its real-life influences and (if relevant) the controversy that swelled around it (like the second episode, "The Nest of Angels," which caused quite a stir in the UK). These features range in length from about two minutes to a good solid ten minutes, and are invaluable companion pieces to each episode. Why nobody has thought to do this for all television shows on DVD is beyond me.
Next, we get commentary tracks on five of the ten episodes from a rotating cast and crew selection, including Bharat Nalluri, Simon Crawford Collins, Howard Brenton, Matthew Graham, Nicola Walker, Rory McGregor, Hugh Simon, Faith Penhale, and Meagan Dodds. The tracks are informative, laid-back, and frankly a bit on the dull side, but fans of the show will no doubt have their interests piqued by the behind-the-scenes information discussed therein.
Then come the rest of the featurettes, and boy, there are a lot of them. Good luck getting through all of these in one sitting. Ready? You get a 15-minute featurette interviewing writer Howard Brenton, a 10-minute featurette discussing the changes made bringing Spooks to American audiences, including having to cut 15 minutes per episode in order to fit the format of American television. There is a 13-minute featurette on Jennie Muskett, the musical composer; a 20-minute featurette on the writers and script editors of Season Two; an eight-minute featurette exploring the specific score composed for the second episode of the season; and a 10-minute featurette with cast and crew discussing the changes made in the second season compared to the first season. A three-minute featurette discusses the cliffhanging ending of the first season and the follow-through into the second season. A featurette each on Shauna MacDonald, Sam Buxton, Nicola Walker, Ruth Evershed, Megan Dodds, Christine Dale, Rory McGregor, and Colin Wells—yes, a separate one for each and every one of them, about five minutes long per person, discussing their acting careers, their characters on the show, and so on. Deep breath, steady on…almost done. You also get a three-minute story conference featurette discussing with the writers and crew of MI-5 planning future episodes, and a seven-minute featurette entitled "What We Did On Our Holidays" which is ridiculously self-explanatory.
Finally, there is a gallery of over a hundred photos, 20 minutes of deleted scenes, a secret credit section (since the show itself has no credits listed), and the required trailers, as well as some DVD-ROM material that I refused to check out because it involved installing third-party crappy software on my computer. Now I pass out from lack of oxygen. Give me a second to catch my breath. All in all, this is an absolutely astounding round-up of material to supplement a television show—any television show—and it puts American television DVD releases to shame, because nothing compares to this level of cast and crew participation, dedication, and detail.
I only have two complaints with the whole affair. First, I had to type "featurette" like a billion times just then, and I am now sick of the word for the rest of my life. Secondly, it probably would have made more sense to have an entire disc dedicated to this swath of material—with the extra material fragmented and spread out across all five discs, navigation is a royal pain.
And speaking of "royal pain" and "navigation"…
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Anyone who took in the majesty that was MI-5: Volume One will be terrified and disgusted to discover that the biggest problem with the previous DVD set—the navigation system—has not been fixed this second time around. The menus are outrageously animated in the literal sense of the word, since they will fill you with outrage when you have to go through them again and again.
A masked figure breaks into the MI5 office and sits down at a workstation, his actions guided by Danny over a headset. The intruder sits down at a workstation and is presented with numerous options, like a computer, a stack of DVDs, a phone, a piece of paper, and so on, each one corresponding with a navigation option. For example, to play episodes, you select the DVD stack, and then sit back while the intruder grabs the DVD, opens the jewel case, takes out the disc, and puts it in the computer. Presumably this is to harness the excitement that takes place when one gets up and puts discs into their DVD player, which I know is my favorite part of watching a movie. Experiencing it twice is so much fun. Worse, if you don't know which item corresponds to which feature, you have to sit and wait for Danny to slowly and lethargically explain the navigational system out loud. Take that, hearing-impaired people.
While I can appreciate the novelty and stylishness of such an interactive navigation system, from a practical point of view, this is the most inconvenient and irritating DVD navigational system I have ever tried (in vain) to utilize. It sucks, plain and simple. At least the animations can be skipped with 17 or 18 simple flicks of the forward button on your remote.
Thumbs down on the navigation system, but big ups on everything else. MI-5 is sleek, stylish, tense, and compelling—some of the best television I have had the pleasure to watch. MI-5: Volume Two is chock-full of great extras with an excellent technical presentation. You really can't lose on this one.
Despite their peculiar and bewildering attachment to the word "telly," the British sure know how to make compelling, dramatic, and engaging television. Please take note, America, as the BBC will now demonstrate exactly how to release a television show onto DVD. Hope you have your biros at the ready.
As good as the show is, the DVD is even better. How about that? Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
• Interviews with Cast and Crew Featurettes
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