The beauty of the following TV shows and movies is they, unlike the James Bond franchise, did not take themselves all that seriously. They understood that they were works of fiction and some thinly veiled recapitulation of the “real life” of a super spy. Ironically, the one Bond film that got it right, Casino Royale, is not generally considered a legitimate part of the franchise.
The problem with the Bond films is that they would not or could not accept the utter fiction that they were portraying, Instead, a cloying attitude of “this could really happen” was promulgated. Never mind the ridiculous execution attempts and the completely “divorced from reality” villains, Bond himself was allowed to age, less than gracefully, and yet maintained the vigor of a man half his age.
Here then are six spy shows whose creators, writers and actors understood the genre, had fun with it and never, ever considered itself more than what it was.
Utterly British in attitude, this show featured the unflappable John Steed and the undeniably gorgeous Mrs. Peel as they tore up the English countryside while foiling one preposterous scheme after another. The villains are never really identified. They are just a rogues gallery of assorted psychopaths with too much money and time on their hands. For enjoyment, they mess with the British establishment and the Avengers must set things right. This show is notable for its understated elegance and for the inevitable wink and a nod.
Dean Martin as a suave, martini swilling, super spy? It was not much of a stretch for Dino to play this character except for the spy part but he gave it a flair that has rarely been equaled. As such, there is plenty wine, women and an occasional song. Incidentally, Matt Helm is technically a counter agent and not a spy. He merely eliminates spies from the other side In any event, Mr. Martin’s portrayal has influenced films for the last forty years including, most notably, the Austin Powers’ movies.
Is anyone cooler than James Coburn as Derek Flint?
Is there a plot goofier than that of Our Man Flint?
Not likely in either case. The creators of the Flint franchise set out to make a farcical parody of the Bond franchise and succeeded beyond expectations. The movie spawned several sequeals and is still watchable today. The Bond creators and Albert Broccoli, in particular, missed the point and actually copied aspects of the Flint character in future Bond movies. It was the beginning of the end for Bond.
Our Man Flint has mad scientists blackmailing the governments of the world, assorted beauties that can’t get enough of our hero and a cocksure super spy who works for an agency named Z.O.W.I.E. The fun never stops and Mr. Coburn’s charm never runs thin. For a different take on the same theme, also catch the movie, the President’s Analyst.
Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin are the ultimate agents and “go-to guys” in the United Network Command for Law Enforcement as they battle THRUSH, the Technological Hierarchy for the Removal of Undesirables and the Subjugation of Humanity. It’s true. You can’t make this stuff up.
Along the way, Solo and Kuryakin meet dozens of women with Napoleon acting much like Captain Kirk in every episode, that is, he always gets the girl much to Kuryakin’s chagrin. They are helped by futuristic gadgets and weapons that bear no resemblance to reality whatsoever. The Bond producers would also steal this gimcrackery.
In the end, the Man from U.N.C.L.E. caricatured itself to death. It legions of fans, mostly young boys, believed in the premise and did not take to its self-imposed lampooning. The series died a rapid death in the middle of its fourth season but is still fondly remembered by those who vicariously lived through Robert Vaugh and David McCallum.
A Change in Gears
The next two series never really influenced the Bond franchise. Instead, they took the entire idea of private enterprises bent on world domination and stood the it on its head. Any spy fan would be foolish not to take a look at these two marvelous works of satire and their fabulous sense of hilarity.
From the brilliant, opening credits through every tired pun and nuanced gesture to Max and 99’s ultimate victory, this show highlighted the comedic genius of its creators, Mel Brooks and Buck Henry.
Maxwell Smart and the agents of CONTROL spent each week thwarting the efforts of Bernie Koppel, King Moody and Ted Knight. Their whimsical brand of comedy utilized everything from mother in law jokes to understatement, “That’s the second biggest arrow I’ve ever seen,” to inside jokes in Yiddish, “Shtarker!!”
Along the way, a madcap assortment of friends and foes, literal minded robots and bilingual dogs kept the action moving. The assortment of gadgets in Agent 86’s arsenal, included the Cone of Silence, the “Laser Blazer" and of course, the ubiquitous shoe phone. Not to be missed.
I hesitate to call this show insouciant. Nevertheless, the word is perfectly apt. The show involved a cast of real chimpanzees, dressed in costumes and with overdubbed human voices, who acted out a plot based on the machinations of super spies. This production was first rate as it used elaborate costume designs, Rolls Royce limos and a superb ensemble of character actors who could ad lib par excellence.
The plots were fairly standard and of course, involved a plan for an evil organization. CHUMP, to take over the world. The true value of the show was in the staging and dialogue. To see a chimpanzee dressed in tux and monocle as the Baron von Butcher or as the disarming and very beautiful, Mata Hairy defies description. Cap this off with a recurring role for an all-chimpanzee psychedelic band, the Evolution Revolution and the show must, simply, be seen to be believed. It is no stretch to think that many of this shows concepts were significantly drug induced.
Lancelot Link: Secret Chimp was the parting shot from an industry that had seen its fill of spy parodies. Future shows would concentrate on a more realistic view of the genre. In particular, Mission: Impossible successfully sold a more "realistic" version of the spy game but Hollywood, as usual, has come full circle and unknowingly parodied itself, once again, with an endless series of ridiculous. self-important thrillers. In short, what we need again is more Mike Myers and less Tom Cruise.