When former CIA man Mike Baker wants a nostalgia fix, he can choose among spy vs. spy vs. spy — the TV series “Alias,” “24” and, on assignment from Britain, “MI-5.”
While “24” fans savor the adrenaline rush and “Alias” fans marvel at its conspiracies and how Jennifer Garner deftly matches wardrobe to mission without a stylist, Baker prefers the relative realism of “MI-5.”
The fact he serves as a consultant for the drama about an elite group of British counterterrorist agents may play into his favoritism.
“From the beginning, the questions focused on what’s the job like, what pressures does it place on family and friends,” Baker said. Producers wanted to know “the difficulties officers have in melding their private lives with the job.”
“The nice thing is they’ve stuck with that,” Baker said.
The series, in its third season on A&E (10 p.m. ET Saturdays), anchors itself in reality by playing off real-world domestic and international threats and with references to figures such as British Prime Minister Tony Blair and President Bush.
Among past story lines: an anarchist group intensifies its protest against a Bush visit to Britain; an Irish terrorist claims information about a planned Osama bin Laden attack on a nuclear power plant; a germ-warfare drill begins to look frighteningly real.
“We’re not trying to make a documentary piece about what it’s like to be a real spy, but from the get-go we wanted this to be more believable than” the typical TV series, said executive producer Stephen Garrett.
‘Smarter than audiences’“MI-5” (titled “Spooks” in Britain) is slickly produced, with a cinematic look and stars who rival the most fetching U.S. spies. Among the cast members are Matthew Macfadyen, Keeley Hawes and David Oyelowo.
For viewers who want to play catch-up, seasons one and two are out on DVD from BBC Video and promise “confidential espionage secrets.” In DVD-speak, that means previously unaired footage, cast interviews, an MI-5 glossary and “agent dossiers.”
Given that one U.S. critic pronounced the BBC series “far smarter than most audiences on these shores are accustomed to,” it’s a bit of an ego salve that an ex-American agent is a contributor.
Baker worked for more than 14 years as a covert field operations officer for the Central Intelligence Agency, focusing on counterterrorism, counternarcotics and counterinsurgency operations. He left in 1998.
Bursts of excitement on missions would be separated by painstaking efforts to lay the groundwork for operations, said Baker, now head of Veritas Global, an information and risk management consulting firm.
“A tremendous amount of labor goes into gathering and assessing information, looking for leads, targets or a scenario to get to a target,” he said. “A lot of that wouldn’t make particularly good TV.”
Authentic dramaThe tensions stemming from the duplicitous nature of spy work and the effort to cultivate a normal life, key dramatic elements of “MI-5,” are authentic, according to Baker.
(The MI-5 agency is comparable to the FBI in its handling of domestic security issues, with MI-6 akin to the CIA, he said.)
“You’re out there trying to gather information under an alias and always operating under a different agenda than what you’re showing. ... Some people have issues with the manipulation side of things,” Baker said.
Romances like the one on “MI-5” between a British agent and CIA liaison do occur, Baker said.
Full disclose would be required to superiors and one person would have to give up their career if they want to keep the relationship going and perhaps “produce a gaggle of little spies,” Baker said.
(If workplace affairs are familiar to the average person, how about something even more mundane: expense accounts. “If I go out and rent and destroy five or six rental cars in the course of an operation, and blow through five or six presidential suites in different countries, I’d better have my receipts when I get back,” Baker said. “I could have done the world’s most successful operation but if I’ve lost receipts and can’t do the accounting, there’s going to be hell to pay.”)
Baker admits to dipping into the various TV spy series from time to time but says he appreciates the “MI-5” writers’ concerted effort to keep it as honest as possible without sacrificing the dramatic edge.
None of the spy shows alone is a ratings blockbuster, but there is viewer affinity for espionage: In the season to date, “24,” “Alias” and “MI-5” have attracted a collective average audience of about 27 million. By comparison, top-ranked “American Idol” is drawing more than 30 million.
Given the sensitive and ominous nature of current events, how do producers draw the line at injecting reality into the show?
“We don’t really,” Garrett said, citing an example of how much fact and fiction merge.
“We had a story about an extreme racist group stirring up trouble in high-immigrant areas to provoke the government into tighter legislation on immigration,” he said. “Our show was followed by the main BBC news show which lead with a story of an almost identical nature.”