“The greatest thing would be if Felicity was recruited by the CIA,” J.J. Abrams once said about the protagonist of his late-’90s, coming-of-age campus drama. “[T]hen she could be going on these secret missions, living this life that she couldn’t tell [her boyfriends] about, dismantling bombs.” This quote, which I came across in a book by Entertainment Weekly’s Ken Tucker, reveals the genesis of Abrams’ follow-up to Felicity, the Jennifer Garner hit Alias. It’s also an excellent explanation for why there are so many female spies on television. The first scene in Alias’ first episode shows a red-wigged Sydney Bristow being tortured and interrogated by Chinese-speaking operatives.* Danger, deception, foreign travel, colorful hair—what’s not to love?
Clandestine operatives have been the stuff of hit films and thrillers for decades, and women like The Avengers’ Emma Peel and even Get Smart’s Agent 99 have always been part of the scene. But ever since Alias hit the airwaves in 2001, TV writers have been particularly fascinated with the female of the species. By my count, three current American TV shows—USA’s Covert Affairs (Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET), Showtime’s Homeland (Sundays at 10 p.m. ET), and the CW’s Nikita (Fridays at 8 p.m. ET)—focus on the lives of female spies. A pair of spy shows with male leads, USA’s Burn Notice (Thursdays at 10 p.m. ET) and NBC’s Chuck (Fridays at 8 p.m. ET), also feature prominent female operatives. If television is an accurate guide—and it probably isn’t—women are taking over the security services.
Matt Corman and Chris Ord, the creators and executive producers of Covert Affairs, told me they were drawn to spycraft because “it’s all about secrets and identity.” Those themes make for intriguing narratives generally and lend themselves especially well to television, where events have more time to unfold. Corman and Ord chose to base their show at the CIA because they wanted to look at Langley as a workplace, “a building where people go to work every day, the same way people go to IBM or McDonald’s. They face many of the same problems as people at other jobs … as well as some others that are very specific to being a spy.”
For a television showrunner, the world of espionage offers a host of advantages over other TV settings. An espionage show can make massive continuity leaps—a character who usually reports to work at an office park in Northern Virginia can zip off to Berlin or Bogotá, Colombia—with no more justification than “chatter on the wires.” Undercover work also permits a host of narrative shortcuts. Once the phrase read me in has been uttered, characters can spew out great globs of undiluted exposition. And no other genre makes it easier to turn a hero into a rogue—all you need to do is declare that she’s a double agent.
There are plenty of career paths for female TV characters who lack secret identities: police officer, doctor, lawyer, advertising copywriter, forensic anthropologist, inn keeper. Spycraft, though, confers the advantage of adaptability. In a single episode, Covert Affairs’ rookie CIA agent Annie Walker (played by Piper Perabo) uses the skills of a linguist, a bodyguard, an investigator, a psychiatrist, and a diplomat. Corman and Ord told me that flexibility wasn’t the reason they made Annie a spy, but they agreed that “it allows us more storylines than just being a cop.”
The ratings failure of NBC’s Prime Suspect reboot, I’d argue, suggests that female cops—rooted in the not-so-whimsical world of Miranda warnings—hold less appeal for viewers than flirtatious, scheming secret agents. While real-life members of the clandestine services typically spend their days digging through documents, their film and TV analogues enjoy a glamorous life of cocktail parties and high-stakes interrogations. When it comes to portraying the spy life, Corman and Ord say they strive to find a tone that’s “grounded in reality but gives all the escapism and fun you should get from a TV show.”
Spy shows aren’t popular on account of their realism, though. Today’s TV Mata Hari is a superhero who appeals to both men and women—a toned and well-trained young woman who regularly outwits and outscraps brawny dudes. It’s hard to imagine a TV cop busting out her Krav Maga moves and coming out alive, but female spies are almost indestructible, even if their social lives aren’t.
The current crop of small-screen spies display great emotional range, wobbling weekly between toughness and vulnerability. In Homeland, Claire Danes’ Carrie Mathison is a CIA operations officer so devastated by the agency’s failure to prevent 9/11 that she is endangering her life by self-medicating rather than admit her brain chemistry is wonky and risk losing her job. She has also sacrificed her social life—when another character asks why she hadn’t married, she replies, “It just hasn’t felt right quite yet … or as important as what I do for a living.” That makes for an isolating and lonely existence.
It’s odd that Carrie’s atypical brain chemistry might render her ineligible for service in the CIA, since its main manifestation is excessive commitment to her work. (Well, that and insufficient impulse control.) At Covert Affairs, Corman and Ord, who, it must be noted, strenuously resisted my efforts to lure them into gender generalizations, said that spies are typically seen as cold-hearted and manipulative—indeed, that froideur is the defining trait of characters like James Bond or the Saint. Annie Walker, on the other hand, is emotional, intuitive, and empathic; she sees the good in people, and struggles to balance that with the parts of her job that require her to be manipulative. The show’s creators argue that’s not necessarily because she’s a woman—Auggie, her male handler, is also optimistic and emotional. And indeed, TV spooks of both sexes seem to be a monogamy-loving, emo bunch: The eponymous hero of Chuck and Burn Notice’s Michael Westen have been mooning over their great loves ever since their shows debuted.
It’s female spies in particular, however, who seem to have a much better chance of being killed by a terrorist than of dating a decent guy. (Occasionally, they find a way to risk both events at the same time—on Homeland, Carrie was so determined to keep her eyes on a suspected al-Qaida operative that she jumped into bed—and the back of a car—with him.) Not only must the ladies of Langley deal with some serious trust issues—is he cute, will he cheat, is he deep undercover?—but some men are absolutely off-limits. Annie is often reminded that she can’t date foreigners, and on Chuck, CIA agent Sarah Walker’s early feelings for the everyman protagonist were complicated by workplace considerations (she was his handler—a position of power) and the unwritten rule that spies can only date other spies. In the end, though, Sarah turned out to be the rare agent who found her perfect match, albeit after four seasons of quirky trials and tribulations.
The Covert Affairs showrunners told me that, especially since real spies often trade on sexuality, they’ve decided that “it’s OK to acknowledge the sex appeal of our characters.” But as opposed to the creators of the short-lived, syndicated She Spies, at least they’re equal-opportunity objectifiers—just as likely to show buff male characters unencumbered by shirts as Annie in a skimpy outfit. They also play with viewers’ expectations: On this week’s episode, Annie seduced a handsome Israeli spy—but just as things were getting serious, she zip-tied him to the bed, thus preventing him from undertaking a suicide mission. It was sexy, and it was smart spycraft—and the viewers will still respect Annie in the morning.
*Correction Nov. 17, 2011: This article originally and incorrectly stated that Alias’ Sydney Bristow wore a pink wig in the series’ first episode. It was a red wig.