Our Summer Obsession

I am walking down a street. It looks innocent enough. I’m not fooled, though. It’s quiet. Too quiet.

For example, do you see that young woman coming along, pushing the baby stroller? Well, how do you know it’s a baby in that stroller? How do you know it’s not an Uzi she’s going to be whipping out any second now? How do you know she’s not a suicide bomber?

All of which may sound a little hysterical and over-the-top paranoid. But if you say something like that, you have obviously not been spending your spare time as my husband and I have, watching the incredible BBC spy series, MI-5. We’ve gotten hooked, badly and irreparably, and have since been making our way through nine seasons of 8-10 hour-long shows apiece.

Nine seasons! Imagine the commitment. It’s no wonder I don’t have the time to read Proust.

Every night, for the past few weeks, we’ve eaten dinner, checked our email and dived in. Who knew there was so much intrigue and danger going on in England? Every night, there’s a new threat from the IRA, Christian fundamentalists, militant Islamists, financial predators, loner nutjobs. You name the group or individual, they are out to get you in a very ugly and personal way.

Fortunately, the small and select cadre of Brits, the MI-5, is on the case and usually prevails. They sacrifice their personal lives, they spy, they eavesdrop, they lie up a storm, they have to run and dodge explosives quite a bit. They remind me of one of my favorite lines from Godfather II, where Hyman Roth shakes his head sadly and tells Michael, “This is the business we have chosen.”

The business we have chosen! Exactly! So, when you’re all mobbed up, bad things happen, and when you’re in charge of national security in a world gone ape-shit, you can’t trust the young woman with the stroller or the innocuous-looking fellow idling a few feet away, since they both probably want to kill you.

I watch devotedly, realizing I could never be a spy in a zillion years. I’m not talking about my extreme physical cowardice, although that’s a start. I’m talking about being secretive about everything. I’m also talking about being abrupt and rude. Spies never even say hello when somebody calls them and they hang up without saying good-bye or “take care.”  Why talk on the phone if you’re not going to take the time to chitchat and exchange personal information?

Anyway, this brings me to another point about being a slavish fan of MI-5: You’ll get your heart broken on a routine basis. Since everything seems to remind me of something else, I offer this anecdote. You may or may not remember the late Jim Valvano, the funny, high-spirited basketball coach at North Carolina State. Although eventually worshiped by most fans, Valvano got off to a bad start. After a bad loss, an amateur critic wrote that he wanted to kill both Valvano and his dog. Valvano wrote back that, unfortunately, he didn’t have a dog. The next day, a  puppy was sitting at his front door, with a message pinned to his collar: “Don’t get attached.”

Similarly, you shouldn’t get too attached to the main characters on MI-5. They have a way of dying on you. Also, if you’re a hypersensitive American, you might get your feelings hurt. Americans, by and large, come across as arrogant louts and blowhards on the show.

But those are minor quibbles. What really worries me is this: I can’t quite recall our lives before MI-5 took over — even though I’m sure they were contented and full and all that. We’re now past halfway in season 8, with only 10 or so shows to go. What on earth are we going to do when we reach the end?

(Copyright 2011 by Ruth Pennebaker)

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17 comments… add one
  • I haven’t gotten into this one, but felt that very way for most of the early HBO series, including “Six Feet Under,” (my all time favorite), “The Sopranos,” “The Wire,” and “Deadwood.” Somehow, we do survive, though, and find something else to occupy our time. Right now, it is “Damages,” and “Suits.” In September, it will be “Dexter.” 🙂

  • Anton Link

    I hate finishing a good series, because you end up with that “well damn it, what am I going to watch now?” feeling. I felt that way after Downton Abbey most recently.

    My desire to watch a lot of television and movies leaves me feeling somewhat guilty about how that time could be spent doing other things. My solution at the moment is that I’ve parked the exercise bike/rowing machine in front of the television for the summer.

  • Flutterby Link

    But have you noticed that 99.9% of British shows portray Americans as rude, money-grubbing, insensitive, clumsy, tasteless and ignorant? Are they trying to tell us something?

  • Craig Link

    I’m leaning toward Proust. At least you got cookies

  • After the series concludes, you can give way totally to your paranoia, which must be about ready to ransack your nervous system by now. And you might try building paranoia in your hubby, so he will have something to occupy his new found free time as well.
    You might start with something like this: Walk through the room with a shoebox. Pause, raise a brow, and utter, “Aren’t you the least bit curious as to what I’m carrying here?” To which he might reply, “So, you’ve finally gone out and bought some new shoes. And about time! All your old ones have such rundown heels. I’ve been feeling shame whenever we meet our friends.” In turn, without missing a beat, you respond thusly, “Or… I just may be harboring a German chocolate cake in this box. You know, to bludgeon your palate with, when you least suspect it. Do you feel a bit chilly, dear?’

  • ***** to Flutterby:

    Yes, I have noticed the Brits portray Americans in a ghastly manner. But I don’t take it personally. Not one oft those concocted Americans speak with a Magnolia drawl. It is much nicer, and safer, to live here in the South. Let the accusatory fingers continue to point elsewhere.

  • Oh, I envy you. I need an obsession. I’m at a loose end. All summer I have just been waiting for summer to come, and now it’s going without coming. I want to be captured by a gripping TV series. MI-5 did you say?

  • As a longtime fan of MI-5 (or as it is called on UK television, ‘Spooks,’) I too have had my heart broken by one or other of the leads getting killed off. But Harry prevails …. last time I looked, he was still alive and kicking. Unfortunately, unlike US serials/mini-series, MI-5 does’t go on forever, so enjoy it while you can. (By the by, we motored past MI-5 headquarters on the River Thames on Duchess Omnium’s narrow boat this summer!)

    Another one I’ve found worth watching is Law & Order: UK. Nothing at all like the many-headed US version which I think is rubbish. And the accents are a hoot!

  • It’s a sign of great screenwriting if they write such good characters that you find yourself attached, as if to old friends. The two series that have really gotten to me this way in recent years are Foyle’s War and Friday Night Lights. I felt like I couldn’t stand it when I had to say goodbye to Foyle and Sam, and to Coach Taylor and his crew.

  • Merr Link

    Well, I thought you were going to say there might be a cat in the stroller (wearing a bonnet, no less…it could happen). The show sounds gripping…maybe a little too much for a jittery type?? That said, like Living Large, I love The Wire.

  • It’s called ‘Spooks’ everywhere else in the world. I think I’m up to season 8, but haven’t seen season 9 yet. You are right though, it is best not to get too attached to any one in particular. Main characters do have a tendency to get killed, primarily by being blown up, but they are also occasionally shot, tortured to death, hung or otherwise disposed of in nasty ways.

  • Terry Link

    My husband and I are just now watching Six feet Under…so fun not to have to wait for a week to see if Lisa disappears forever…or if Ruth is really a lesbian…(not really a plot line…just thought it was funny) Watching series in blocks of time is way better than mowing the yard when the thermometer reads 106.

  • msue Link

    We were addicted to MI-5 for a while. You are right – all my favorite characters seem to meet an unfortunate end! The shows are dark and exciting, but make me suspicious of even the most innocent situation. I took a break from watching and slept soundly for the first time in ages. Now I love Masterpiece Mystery for its intrigue without too much violence. Plus the intro by Alan Cumming is as entertaining as the show itself.

  • I know how you feel. I am addicted to “Dexter.”

    BTW, I do remember Valvano. In fact, I was in first grade with the guy who was “deep throat” to the whole scandal and ended up being The News & Observer’s Tarheel of the Week for his story. I did a cut and paste of your anecdote and emailed it to him, bec I’m sure he will enjoy it.

  • I read this wonderful post last week and as an Expat Brit found it hilarious. We (my wife and I) have also waded through various series on DVD, watching every episode in a matter of weeks. Thus I concluded that Baltimore was inhabited entirely by either criminals, victims or cops and only about 6 of the latter running the entire Homicide squad for the city. Clearly the best of these has now left the Force and was last seen running a Car Dealership in LA with his Dad. What will Baltimore do??? But I digress. My point was that last week your blog was amusing and as far fetched as the MI5 series itself. I also watched the latest re run on TV (the double episode in which there was rioting on the streets of London and ………not funny any more oh. and all too believable.

  • Bad news Ruth! Spooks has been cancelled by the BBC!!!!!!


    Move on to the real thing – John le Carre? Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Smileys People and The Perfect Spy. That should occupy a few hours!

  • Haven’t stumbled across Spooks yet, but I understand a series addiction when it strikes. Like Melanie, it’s often the smart script-writing that draws me back and the Brits have that down in spades.

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