Television reviews

TV reviews: ‘Spies of Warsaw,’ ‘Rogue’

 

ggarvin@MiamiHerald.com

“It was easier when we were simply soldiers,” one spy says to the other as they try to calculate their responsibility — or, perhaps, reprehensibility — in the gruesome strangling of a colleague at the hands of the opposition. “Black and white. Now everything is gray.”

Gray is definitely the color of the night on Wednesday television with the debut of two shows cloaked in moral and narrative ambiguity. BBC America’s Spies of Warsaw is a classic tale of espionage, chockablock with secret agents peering up one another’s skirts (often quite literally), while in DirecTV’s Rogue an undercover cop goes dangerously off the rails pursuing a private agenda.

If the titular Spies of Warsaw were under my command, the first question they’d be required to answer would be, why has it taken a quarter of a century and the intervention of a British television network to bring one of America’s best espionage writers to the screen? Since 1988, Alan Furst has turned out a dozen tense, atmospheric spy novels set in Europe during World War II without Hollywood so much as twitching a muscle. The Spies of Warsaw, as his book was titled, is neither the most recent nor the best.

(Which brings us to my second question: Why on earth was the word “the” deleted from the title? Did a focus group object? Does it make the name too long for Twitter? Is this the first shot in the long-anticipated War on Articles?)

Furst’s books all offer the same engaging elements that the BBC makes such excellent use of in this two-part miniseries: The claustrophobic lifeboat atmosphere of a society teetering toward its doom. A mixture of sly intelligence operatives and ordinary people caught up in events beyond their understanding. A continent stalked by totalitarian ideologies on which the middle will not hold.

Perhaps even more important is what they lack — the crippling deus ex technico that afflicts so many modern spy thrillers. In Furst’s pre-digital world, nobody ever uses his smart phone to redirect a reconnaissance satellite or collect surveillance footage from security cameras. The most cutting-edge technology on display in Spies of Warsaw is an 8mm movie camera.

These spies traffic not in electrons but flesh and blood. Humans — some willing players in what Rudyard Kipling called the Great Game of intelligence, some not — are seduced or extorted, blackmailed or bribed.

While Spies of Warsaw’s trappings are drawn from history books, however, its central concept is ripped from the headlines. Its various plots and counterplots revolve around one of history’s great intelligence failures: France’s belief, as World War II approached, that the network of bunkers, pillboxes and fortifications known as the Maginot Line, which stretched 200 miles along its border with Germany, would keep Hitler’s army at bay and prevent the outbreak of war.

David Tennant ( Doctor Who) stars as Jean Francois Mercier, a newly arrived military attaché at the French embassy in Warsaw. Under his cover as a superficial aristocrat engrossed in the diplomatic party circuit (“almost every night, I sip the wine, taste the food, find everyone fascinating,” he mocks himself), Mercier is running a network of spies against Germany.

From the reports he receives, Mercier has begun to suspect that Germany has devised new weapons and strategies that will enable it to bypass the Maginot Line and that war is much closer at hand than his government believes. His French intelligence bosses are unimpressed with his theory, which they think is disinformation being passed along to him by his new girlfriend, Anna Skarbek (Janet Montgomery, Black Swan), a League of Nations lawyer who is also seeing an exiled Russian journalist of dubious allegiance. Anna seems nonplussed by the suspicions. “They think I’m a spy?” she asks in amazement. “I’m a slut.”

The covert uses of sexuality are also a big part of the landscape in Rogue, an intriguing crime drama unfortunately available only to subscribers to DirecTV’s satellite television service. It stars Thandie Newton ( ER) as Grace Travis, an undercover police detective yanked from her assignment infiltrating a San Francisco gang after her young son is killed in a drive-by shooting.

Her colleagues are convinced that the child was just an unlucky bystander — “just a senseless tragic accident,” as one cop says. “It happens all the time.” But as news becomes evident suggesting that her son was actually the target of the hit, and that it was related to her police work, Grace goes back undercover without official authorization.

What distinguishes Rogue from a zillion or so other shows about undercover cops is Grace’s alienation from her fellow officers and even her own family, all of whom think she’s nuts. “It’s not a job,” Grace’s husband caustically observes of her undercover work. “It’s an addiction.” As her so-called real life crumbles, Grace finds that her most genuine relationship, steeped in lies though it may be, is the one with the crime boss (Martin Csokas, The Bourne Supremacy) who may have ordered the killing of her son. As it says in the song, love is a bullet-riddled thing.

Read more Glenn Garvin: On TV stories from the Miami Herald

  • Screen gems

    The week ahead at the movies and on TV

  •  
Original 1950s As The World Turns opening.

    In 2006, the world kept turning

    An April 2006 look back at a half-century of ''As the World Turns.''

  • TELEVISION

    Review | 'Good Family' makes fun of the world's do-gooders

    Life's not easy if you're an organic-eating, tree-hugging, SUV-eschewing, carbon-footprintless, gender-identity-indifferent, diversity-celebrating, nonjudgmental (well, except for those damn U.S. flag pins) vegan pacifist. Just ask Gerald and Helen Goode, the First Couple of PC America.

Miami Herald

Join the
Discussion

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category