Spooks: Season Two Review
Warning: this review assumes that you have seen up to the end of Spooks: Season One.
Dismissed by some as a poor man's 24, Spooks has nonetheless garnered a fair level of commendation from critics and audiences alike. With its third season now available on DVD, now seems like the perfect time to look back and evaluate both the second season and its own DVD release.
For those who are not already familiar with the show, the basic premise is that of a precinct drama focusing on MI5 spy. The main character is one Tom Quinn (Matthew MacFayden), a senior operative and a man who is very good at his job, despite his complicated private life. Also in the spotlight are fellow spies Zoe Reynolds (Keeley Hawes) and Danny Hunter (David Oyelowo), section chief Harry Pearce (Peter Firth), and a gaggle of assorted MI5 employees whose main functions seem to be to transport pieces of paper from one desk to another. Unlike glossy US spy productions like Alias, Spooks has a decidedly realistic sheen, although this doesn't stop the writers from running wild with hair (and eyebrow) -raising storylines.
Season 2 begins at precisely the moment at which Season 1 ended: with Tom locked outside his house, while his girlfriend and her young daughter watch the seconds tick away on the timer of a laptop booby-trapped with explosives. True to fashion, the explosives detonate with a bang, but in a fantastically-executed cheat that seems surprisingly plausible and ungimmicky, it turns out that the explosives were in fact elsewhere, with the laptop merely acting as a decoy. Confusion reigns as reports pour in that the explosion in fact took place in the Northern Ireland Secretary of State's car, killing him. Tom is called in to deal with the situation and is forced to abandon his girlfriend in favour of his job.
Tom's juggling of his personal and private life proves to be the main theme of the season, as he repeatedly gets involved with the wrong women, putting himself, the organization and national security in jeopardy. Season 2 definitely puts more of an emphasis on the main characters' private lives than its predecessor, in part as a result of the additional time afforded for character development with the move from 6 episodes to 10. When it works, it is extremely successful - without revealing too much, I'll just say that the chain events leading up to the chaotic final episode is extremely well set up. When it doesn't, however, it starts to look a bit silly, and the more superficial nature of the show becomes readily apparent - for example, a sideplot involving Zoe getting involved with the wrong man and accidentally being caught in a compromising position with him goes nowhere.
Season 2 also shares many of the flaws present in its predecessor. The dialogue is at times as risible as ever, with characters continually spouting some of the most ridiculously pompous statements ever put on film. A favourite of mine is the fact that the various agents constantly feel the need to remind each other of the importance of their job. "Many resent debris from your world being brought here," a doctor tells Tom on one occasion. "It's your world too, sadly. It's my job to make it safer," he responds. Both participants indulge in this laughable exchange completely earnestly - priceless. The series is also more than slightly blunt when it comes to stereotyping various national and social groups. Although great trouble is taken in Episode 2 to point out that, believe it or not, not all Muslims condone suicide bombing, the French, Americans, army personnel and small-time (black) criminals are presented in their most clichéd forms. (The French smoke constantly, the Americans are arrogant and willing do absolutely anything in the name of their president's safety, soldiers engage in petty schoolyard squabbles, and the black gang members' dialogue has at least one "bling bling" every sentence. I'm serious.)
That said, at its best, Spooks is extremely compelling programming, and although, for all its grit and attempts to emphasize realism, it is no more authentic than glossier, more obviously superficial shows like Alias, its unflinching manner of presenting important current affairs is both extremely commendable and a great method of giving the show resonance beyond the episodes themselves. The aforementioned second episode, for instance, tackles the issue of Islamic extremism and suicide bombers (given even greater significance after the events this July) in an impressively up-front manner, and later, one stand-out episode poses the question of how we would really cope if faced with a nuclear attack. Rarely shying away from brutal imagery, the first season's biggest talking point was the "death by deep fat fryer" incident in the second episode, and this second run cooks up such beauties as crucifixions on Hampstead Heath, broken feet and children being trained as suicide bombers. It is this readiness to go beyond the normally safe limits of popular television that gives this admittedly po-faced show the edge that is missing from most similar programmes. Contrast this with Alias, where the threats are rather vague and the enemy factions, while bearing some resemblance to various real-life organizations, are very much fabrications of the show's creators. In Spooks, references to Bin Laden, Hamas and the IRA remind us all too well that the events depicted on screen are not a world away from reality, and the occasional use of authentic-looking reports using the BBC News 24 and Sky News helps give the impression that, yes, the situations dealt with by the ficticious spies in the show really could happen.
And of course, when all else fails, the acting talent on display allows the show to get through its more ludicrous moments, since the performers are often able to use their conviction to make what would otherwise be complete nonsense appear to make sense. No-one is completely on the ball the whole time, it must be said - not least Matthew MacFayden, who despite occupying the lead role has always been the weakest actor in the ensemble - but on a number of occasions during this season, the cast really does get to shine. This is especially true of the "nuclear attack" episode, which sees both the characters and their performers taken all the way to the edge, and what makes the performances in this episode so believable is that they truly do seem to represent the behaviour of people trapped in an impossible situation and genuinely believing that the world as they know it has come to an end. The strongest performance continues to come from Peter Firth, whose curmudgeonly but sympathetic Harry Pearce gets a chance this season to develop beyond his role behind a desk. The newcomers, Shauna MacDonald and Nicola Walker, take a while to find their feet, but by the end of the season they are firm fixtures of the show. And of course, Keeley Hawes can always be relied on to deliver a decent routine, making that near-RP accent seem oddly alluring.
Of the three seasons that have been made so far, this second year is definitely the strongest, building on the strengths of the first season while still retaining its original core cast (the mass departures of the third season are its biggest problem) and delving a little deeper into what makes them tick. Perfection it may not be, and while its earnestness and insistence on taking itself completely seriously may sometimes grate, it does an impressive job of standing alongside its flashier American cousinsit, and remains some of the best television to be produced on this blighted isle in years..
All ten one-hour episodes of Season 2 are included here, spread across a generous five discs (if you're counting, that's two per disc). While this might seem like overkill, it's worth bearing in mind that the Season 1 DVD set also featured one disc for every two episodes, which results in plenty of space being available for each episode and the lavish array of bonus features. The audio-visual presentation is very much on par with that of Season 1, with strong if somewhat unremarkable audio and image quality that belies its television origins and 16mm film stock. As with Season 1, sharpness is not the highest you'll ever see, and a handful of shots look a little too grainy, but all things considered this is a great presentation.
The menu screens are identical to those used for Season 1, and while most people who owned that set will probably have managed to figure out its convoluted system - which, among other things, lacks any form of labeling for the various menu options - it's still needlessly complex and is a major source of irritation. Thankfully, Contender have at last decided to include subtitles, although they cover only the episodes themselves and not the bonus features.
As was the case with Season 1, Contender have gone all-out and provided a vast number of extras, the quality and quantity of which put most other TV box sets to shame.
Commentaries are included for five episodes (1, 2, 3, 5 and 10), and while Season 1 featured commentaries on every episode, I did get the impression that five was enough here (Season 1 was, after all, only six episodes long). The tracks are themselves relatively interesting but tend to be a little subdued, and it is clear that most of the participants have done little if any preparation for them. The strongest tracks are those that feature the writers, as they are able to discuss thematic aspects that the directors and actors don't touch on. Conspicuous by his absence is creator David Wolstencroft, who by the time these tracks were recorded was living in Los Angeles and was therefore unable to participate.
A number of featurettes of various length are spread throughout the five discs, beginning with Controversy, where various members of the cast and crew talk about the second episode and its suicide bombing storyline, as well as the public reactions, both positive and negative. This is a very interesting feature, showing the amount of care that went into the making of the episode to ensure that no-one "got the wrong idea" - of course, a number of people did, many of them furiously complaining about an episode that, in that great British tradition, they hadn't actually seen.
In Creating Season 2, creator/writer Dave Wolstencroft discusses the challenges that faced the writers with coming up with storylines for the second season, and also considers the differences that resulted from the fact that the episodes were written in a post-9/11 climate (much of Season 1 was originally written prior to the attacks, but the episodes were re-written to take them into account). Various producers, executives, directors and actors also chip in to discuss issues like the number of episodes in the season, how this impacted their work, as well as the origins of the various plot points.
Cliffhanging, meanwhile, is a brief featurette that discusses the shock ending of the first season and how the writers "got out of it" when they began the second season. Given how much sense the explanation makes, it's quite amazing to think that, when the cliffhanger was originally written, no-one had any idea how they were going to resolve it.
In Scoring for Spooks, composer Jennie Muskett discusses the process of writing music for the show. The Martyr's Shroud elaborates on this, using the climax of Episode 2 (the scene in which the team confront a young suicide bomber) as a reference point featuring a number of music-only clips from the episode.
A number of featurettes focus specifically on the writing side of the production, beginning with The story conferences, which discusses how the various writers get together to thrash out the storylines.
Season 2 writers is a 20-minute piece interviewing a number of the season's writers, in addition to the two script editors, Faith Penhale and Karen Wilson. They discuss the incredibly work-intensive process of laying out the storylines for the season, as well as how they got into the writing business, and how working on Spooks differs from their previous experiences. This featurette also highlights the key differences between writing a television series in the US versus the UK, where the concept of having a full-time staff of writers really doesn't exist (writers of British television tend to be contracted to write scripts on a by-episode basis).
A generously long 15-minute featurette interviews writer Howard Brenton and a number of his co-workers, charting his work as a playwright and going on to cover his work on Spooks, the approach he takes to writing and the influence of his own political viewpoints.
What we did on our holidays is a light-hearted piece where various cast and crew members talk about what they did during the break between the second and third seasons. The biggest bombshell comes from director Bharat Nalluri, who served as second unit director on the blockbuster Alien vs. Predator.
Another very interesting innclusion is a bonus episode of the US version of the show. Retitled MI-5 to avoid racism connotations over the pond, Season 1 Episode 6 is the instalment on display, and it makes for an eye-opener indeed. Unceremoniously cropped to 4x3 from 16x9, it looks incredibly cramped, and the fact that approximately 10 minutes of material have been shorn from various points means that the pacing feels completely different. Alas, on my copy the episode, for some reason, cuts out five minutes before it should, although I believe Contender has since repressed the disc and will offer a replacement to anyone who has been affected by this error. A featurette entitled MI5 USA helps put this into perspective, covering the reasons for the changes to the title and running time, as well as the show's reception in America.
Various overviews are included for different characters and actors. Due to the fact that all of the central characters and their respective performers were covered on the DVD release of the previous season, the overviews here feature this season's various incoming characters characters, whose roles are largely secondary. The characters of Sam Buxton, Ruth Evershed and Christine Dale all get their moment in the spotlight, along with actors Shauna MacDonald (Sam), Rory McGregor (Colin), Nicola Walker (Ruth) and Megan Dodds (Christine).
Also included are brief featurettes on all episodes, with the exception of Episodes 2, which is discussed in detail in a number of the other featurettes listed above. Trailers and Galleries round off the package, along with numerous Deleted scenes, most of which are merely fat that has been trimmed off to keep the main storylines as lean as possible, although some of them hint at interesting subplots.
If there is any problem with the presentation of these extras, it is that they are not laid out in anything approaching an intuitive manner. The order in which I have listed them here bears little resemblance to their placement on the discs themselves, where you might find a couple of featurettes on writing on disc 2 and the rest on disc 5. The packaging inlay provides a useful index which tells you where to find each feature, but the names given do not always make the content obvious. I suppose this goes back to the idea of searching for clues that ties the extras themselves into the espionage theme, but it's a cheap gimmick and an annoying one.
Contender have served up a very impressive package for Spooks' second season, with decent audio-visual quality and enough insightful extras to make this a tempting purchase even for those not normally won over by the concept of buying television series on DVD. With Season 3 now available on DVD and the broadcast of Season 4 imminent, what better time to catch up on what have so far been the show's finest hours?