Behind Enemy Lines: 25 TV Series Exploring the Art of Espionage

Marcel Iures and Tom Hughes in The Game (2014).

Rather than Ethan Hunt or James Bond running on trains or whipping Aston Martins every four to five years, these series took the “more is better” approach to espionage. There is more television here than you can probably watch for the rest of your life, so choose wisely. This message will self-destruct in five, four, three…

1. The Americans (2013-2018)

The Americans
Image Credit: FX Network.

If you can suspend disbelief as you watch Keri Russell play a Soviet sleeper cell, The Americans is one of the most well-regarded shows in modern television history. Its cast, writers, and directors were perennially nominated for major awards before the show went off air in 2018, and the premise of KGB spies living “normal” lives in the United States provided plenty of intrigue. 

2. 24 (2001-10, 2014)

Gregory Itzin in 24 (2001).
Image Credit: Imagine Television; Real Time Productions; Teakwood Lane Productions; 20th Century Fox Television.

It's challenging to state how popular 24 was during its prime years, as Jack Bauer loved generating massive ratings just as much as he enjoyed foiling radicals' best-laid plans. Even after a four-year hiatus, the return of Kiefer Sutherland's stone-faced spy attracted almost as many eyeballs as an episode of The Voice. If your spy show is nearly as popular as The Voice, you're doing something right. 

3. Get Smart (1965-1969)

Don Adams, Barbara Feldon, and Edward Platt in Get Smart (1965).
Image Credit: NBCUniversal, Inc.

While Millennials might have assumed Steve Carell was the first Maxwell Smart, we owe funnyman Don Adams all the credit. Adams played the bumbling detective who could not get out of his own way. The original Get Smart had the benefit of Mel Brooks, who co-created the show with Buck Henry. 

Few comedic minds combine slapstick humor with high-brow intellectual quips quite like Brooks, making Get Smart a must-see gem in the spy genre. We cannot help but see Get Smart‘s influence in Leslie Nielsen's later spy spoofs.

4. Homeland (2011-2020)

Claire Danes and Mandy Patinkin in Homeland (2011).
Image Credit: Teakwood Lane Productions.

At one time, Homeland was in the running as one of the best television shows. Frequent nominee and winner of both Golden Globes and Emmys, Homeland adequately captured the paranoia of the War on Terror. Claire Danes, Mandy Patinkin, and Damien Lewis delivered stellar performances that kept viewers as uneasy as a convoy rolling through a conflict zone.

5. Condor (2018-2020)

condor
Image Credit: Audience Network.

Adapted from the same source material as Robert Redford's Three Days of the Condor, the television show Condor puts a Millennial spin on the original film. CIA contractor Joe Turner must investigate the mysterious homicide of several of his co-workers, and this is just one element of an entangled plot of espionage and intrigue. 

Whenever you're seeking a worthwhile TV show, it does not hurt to start with high-quality source material. James Grady's book Six Days of the Condor is certainly high-quality source material. 

6. Mission: Impossible (1966-1973)

Lynda Day George and Greg Morris in Mission: Impossible (1966).
Image Credit: Desilu Productions; Paramount Television.

Though younger viewers associate the Mission: Impossible franchise with Tom Cruise, Peter Graves walked so Tom Cruise could run on the tops of moving trains and the sides of skyscrapers. Creator Bruce Geller's series isn't just old-school camp, though. The actors, directors, cinematographers, and makeup artists were frequently nominated for Emmys during the show's seven-season run.

7. TURN: Washington's Spies (2014-2017)

Still of Jamie Bell and Dylan Saunders in AMC's "Turn: Washington's Spies."
Image Credit: AMC Studios.

AMC's TURN: Washington's Spies latches onto just enough real history to satiate American Revolution buffs seeking a thrilling TV show. The tense historical drama centers on Abraham Woodhull, a real guy who led George Washington's Culper Spy Ring. Woodhull and his team of spies played a noteworthy role in the outcome of the American Revolution (spoiler: the Yankees win), and this show's historical relevance warrants this high ranking.

8. Strike Back (2010-2020)

Yasemin Kay Allen in Strike Back (2010).
Image Credit: Left Bank Pictures.

When you think “espionage,” many think “James Bond.” While Strike Back does not involve Agent 007, it does involve several suave MI6 operatives making full use of their technological arsenal. Set in the modern world of the 2010s, Strike Back keeps viewers on their toes by scripting missions that span the globe. One critic describes the show as an “all action” affair with a “ridiculous” production value. 

9. The Man from UNCLE (1964-1968)

Robert Vaughn, Jill Ireland, and David McCallum in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (1964).
Image Credit: Arena Productions; Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Television.

The United Network Command for Law and Enforcement (UNCLE) was an international crime-fighting organization, and agents Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin were its television frontmen. UNCLE's adversaries included the vaunted THRUSH, which Solo, Kuryakin, and Co. would dispatch with ingenuity, charm, and abundant screen presence.

A 2015 Hollywood remake from Guy Ritchie was a sleek, critically praised (but financially disappointing) ode to this classic spy show. The very fact that there was a Guy Ritchie-helmed remake proves how wildly popular the original television show was.

10. Berlin Station (2016-2019)

Richard Armitage and Mina Tander in Berlin Station (2016).
Image Credit: Paramount Television.

Berlin Station‘s three-season run provided intrigue for Epix subscribers, who got a window into the CIA's operations in the coldest of Cold War chess pieces: Berlin. A stellar cast of underrated actors, including Richard Jenkins, Richard Armitage, and Rhys Ifans, make Berlin Station worth a stop on your to-watch list.

11. The Unit (2006-2009)

J.J. Dashnaw in The Unit (2006).
Image Credit: 20th Century Fox Television.

Aside from being Allstate's most recognizable pitchman, actor Dennis Haysbert is best known for his role as Jonas Blayne in The Unit. The rare network television thriller that was a hit with critics and audiences alike, The Unit examined the lives of brave military operatives in the Middle East and the strains that life in the Armed Forces puts on the service member's family. Acclaimed writer David Mamet created this four-season thrill ride, which is reason alone to try the show.

12. Person of Interest (2011-2016)

Joss Carter From Person of Interest
Image Credit: CBS Broadcasting Inc.

A cast led by Jim Caviezel, Taraji P. Henson, and Michael Emerson carry Person of Interest, one of the highest-rated espionage shows ever. The plot involves the creation of software that predicts terror attacks before they occur (think Minority Report), leading to ethical quandaries and no shortage of action. The show probes topical questions about privacy and ethics and will convince you to purchase that VPN subscription you have been mulling.

13. Chuck (2007-2012)

chuck
Image Credit: NBCUniversal Media.

Fans of Leslie Nielsen may get a kick out of Chuck, which offers a less serious take on the espionage genre. Zachary Levi (of Shazam! fame) plays a computer-savvy everyman who accidentally downloads top-secret intel into his brain, making him an unlikely high-value asset to the powers that be.

The show won two Emmys for Outstanding Stunt Coordination, lending a surprising air of believability to this otherwise outrageous spy comedy.

14. MI-5 (2002-2011)

Matthew Macfadyen in MI-5 (2002).
Image Credit: BBC.

British intelligence has a long, storied cinematic history, but its prominence extends beyond Bond. The beloved series MI-5 stars Peter Firth as Harry Pearce, a grizzled agent tasked with ensuring the safety and security of the United Kingdom. Originally titled Spooks, the series' ten-season run indicates its hit status. The re-airing of the show during the COVID lockdowns prompted something of a resurgence, reminding fans of Succession that the bumbling Tom Wambsgans is, beneath the veneer of the role, a Brit.

15. Archer (2009-2023)

Archer e1692828382704
Image Credit: FX.

There is a long history of spy-centric spoofs, from The Naked Gun to Spies Like Us. Yet, few spy comedies have matched Archer's biting wit and longevity. In fact, Jon Hamm's animated detective show Grimsburg garners obvious comparisons to Archer, proving how large the latter looms in the culture.

16. Alias (2001-2006)

Alias Jennifer Garner
Image Credit: ABC.

Alias provided the role that catapulted Jennifer Garner into A-list fame, but J.J. Abrams also delivered plenty for the viewer. Garner's Sydney Bristow is one of the easiest-on-the-eyes spies, and her work for the CIA's top-secret SD-6 branch did not go unnoticed. 

The show attempted to roll several genres into one (including sci-fi), and critics lament that the jack-of-all-trades approach caused some confusion. Even so, an imperfect spy show helmed by J.J. Abrams is an imperfect spy show worth trying.

17. Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan (2018-2023)

John Krasinski in Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan (2018).
Image Credit: Amazon Studios.

Those who want a truly cutting-edge espionage adventure should check out Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan. Based on Clancy's massively successful novels, Prime Video's most successful entry into the spy genre has garnered critical acclaim. If you can't help but see John Krasinski as Jim from The Office, pretend Jim left family life behind and joined the CIA.

18. The Equalizer (1985-1989)

Denzel Washington in The Equalizer 3 (2023)
Image Credit: Sony Pictures Releasing.

Younger viewers may envision Denzel Washington as The Equalizer (or even Queen Latifah, if you can believe it). However, the original Equalizer was Edward Woodward, who played the intelligence-agent-turned-private-eye to perfection. The gritty backdrop of 1980s New York City served as the perfect ecosystem for a no-holds-barred vigilante type.

19. The Blacklist (2013-2023)

Raymond Reddington in his signature hat
Image Credit: Davis Entertainment.

James Spader's Raymond Reddington is a mercurial criminal who unexpectedly surrenders to authorities after years on the most-wanted list. This simple premise launched The Blacklist into a decade-long run that made it one of NBC's most reliable ratings producers. 

Fans of The Blacklist loved hard and were broken up when the show concluded after ten seasons. While it's a network TV show, it's one of the more well-regarded network mysteries in recent memory.

20. The Professionals (1977-1983)

The Professionals Claudia Cardinale
Image Credit: Columbia Pictures.

The Professionals centers on British intelligence spark plugs Doyle and Bodie, whose names seem just as fitting in Point Break. Rather than surfing, the protagonists defend the kingdom from would-be bad guys as agents of Criminal Intelligence 5 (CI-5). 

The partners' differences in background and demeanor make for an excellent buddy-cop dynamic. The 1970s-era cinematography may be a welcomed time capsule for viewers who dislike the rapid-fire pacing of many modern alternatives.

21. Burn Notice (2007-2013)

burn noticeresize
Image Credit: USA Network.

The dry-witted Jeffrey Donovan plays Michael Westen, a spy unceremoniously dumped by his former employer, Uncle Sam. Rather than sulking, Westen naturally uses his espionage talents to the benefit (or detriment, depending on which side of the spy you sit) of Miami's general public. 

Burn Notice drummed up 5 to 7 million viewers per week while on the air, making it a smash hit by USA Network standards. It's been described as “Miami Vice meets The A-Team, it is a truly unique offering in the pantheon of spy-centric television.

22. Patriot (2015-2018)

Terry O'Quinn and Michael Dorman in Patriot (2015).
Image Credit: Amazon Studios.

Not to be confused with the Mel Gibson American Revolution flick, Patriot is an ultra-modern espionage story with a splash of dry humor. Intelligence officer John Tavner is balancing his fake job at a piping company with his role as a spook. His mission is to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear capabilities (topical, huh?) while the cracks in his alias grow increasingly wide.

One of Prime Video's most lauded originals to date, Patriot shouldn't be lost in your streaming shuffle.

23. SEAL Team (2017-2024)

David Boreanaz and Neil Brown Jr. in Phantom Pattern (2022).
Image Credit: CBS Studios.

Have you noticed the major networks releasing more and more shows about service institutions? Whether it's firemen, federal agents, or Navy SEALs, the “just a man (or woman) doing a job” theme is hot.

SEAL Team is one of the few shows of its kind to deserve your time. The show dives into the layered, complicated life of a Navy SEAL, drawing on the successful blueprint of The Unit. If the blueprint works, develop a show that is hardly decipherable from the original, right?

24. The Little Drummer Girl (2018)

Florence Pugh in The Little Drummer Girl (2018).
Image Credit: BBC Studios; AMC Networks; The Ink Factory; 127 Wall Productions.

Before she was a mainstream name, Florence Pugh played an English actress tasked with her most high-stakes gig to date. She is recruited by the Israeli Mossad (topical) to cozy up to an elusive adversary. The show is a well-crafted slow burn from the BBC, and it gets bonus points for casting Michael Shannon as a stone-faced Mossad recruiter.

25. The Game (2014)

Brian Cox, Jonathan Aris, Shaun Dooley, Victoria Hamilton, Paul Ritter, Tom Hughes, and Chloe Pirrie in The Game (2014).
Image Credit: BBC Cymru Wales.

British miniseries The Game only had one season, and it is a season that you should add to your watch list. Succession‘s Brian Cox headlines a case of promising young British actors. The cast convincingly documents the trials of MI-5 agents during the Cold War, a trope that never gets old.

Author: Sam Mire

Title: Popular Culture and Film Writer

Expertise: Film and Television, Life Advice, Comedic Writing, Movies, DIY Handiwork, Books, Current Events and Popular Culture

Bio:

Sam Mire is a freelance writer with over seven years' experience writing about entertainment, global events, American law, and sports. With a Journalism degree from the University of South Florida, Sam focuses on popular culture, film and television, and general life advice in his role for Wealth of Geeks.