The best spy TV shows to enjoy right now
'Killing Eve' is just one of the best spy TV shows for thrills and spills.
What are the best spy TV shows? Well, whether your preference is for tense political thrillers and psychological battles, or rip-roaring romps through international locations and daft gadgets, there’s a show here for you.
What To Watch has put together its ultimate list of spy tv dramas. Some are classics, always worth a watch or a rewatch, while others are ongoing series you can catch up on and get ready for that "new season" excitement when the next episodes drop.
So, get set for your mission as we present our pick of the spy TV dramas. And remember — trust no one...
Making an international star of the UK’s Jodie Comer, Killing Eve sees her play Villanelle, a talented chameleon-like contract killer, who revels in the luxuries of her high-end job. Meanwhile, Eve – Grey’s Anatomy’s Sandra Oh – is a frustrated desk-bound spy whose life at MI5 is not what she imagined it would be. But all that changes when she’s fired for overstepping the mark, but recruited by MI6 with a brief to track down Villanelle. Eve and Villanelle begin a deadly game of cat and mouse, the each becomes obsessed by the other.
The first series — much of it written by Fleabag’s Phoebe Waller-Bridge — was a huge hit. By the third season, the series was receiving a cooler critical reaction, but the combination of inventive murders, fantastic locations alongside stylish dialogue and production still make this a cut above. Killing Eve season 4 has been commissioned and is due to arrive in 2022.
Number of seasons: 3
Episode Length: 45 minutes
Where to watch: US: Hulu UK: BBC iPlayer
This series, adapted from the novels by Anthony Horwitz, sees teenager Alex (Otto Farrant, War & Peace) recruited into a division of MI6. When his uncle and guardian — himself a spy — is killed, Alex is suspicious and works out that MI6 covered up his murder. The agency get wind of his discovery and realise his skills could be useful, so Alex is coerced into working for them. Soon, the teenager is infiltrating a French school that has a connection to his uncle’s murder.
An action-packed, escapist romp, this one is more family viewing than hard-hitting spy drama, and has proved such a hit that a second series will follow later this year. Vicky McClure (Line of Duty) and Stephen Dillane (Game of Thrones) also star.
Number of series: 1
Average Episode Length: 45 minutes
Where to watch: US: Amazon Prime Video UK: Amazon Prime Video
'The Man From U.N.CL.E.'
During the first wave of James Bond mania — when Sean Connery rather than Daniel Craig was your main man — spy shows popped up all over TV, but none as stylish as The Man From U.N.C.L.E.. In fact, this one even had Bond creator Ian Fleming contribute ideas during the show’s creation.
For four series, suave U.S. operative Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn, Hustle) and handsome Russian Illya Kuryakin (British actor David McCallum, NCIS), went into battle for U.N.C.L.E. (United Network Command For Law And Enforcement). While Bond has SPECTRE as his enemy, the men from Uncle has the similarly evil-sounding THRUSH plotting to conquer the world. The show mixed the everyday with the fantastical, and there are plenty of silly gadgets and Bond-like humorous moments among the shoot outs and chases.
Number of Seasons: 4 (1 B&W, 3 colour)
Average episode length: 45 mins
Watch: US: Amazon Prime Video UK: Amazon Prime Video
MI-5 (aka Spooks)
Set in the British secret service, this series follows a team of agents, or Spooks as they’re nicknamed (the original title of the show in the UK), on dangerous missions in London and beyond. The series got off to a controversial start when a lead character (small spoiler warning!) met a gruesome fate in episode two, resulting in a huge number of complaints to the BBC.
The high-octane drama continues over 10 series, showcasing its iconic London locations with thrills and edge-of-your-seat cliffhangers aplenty, as well as more shock deaths along the way. A series of stars take the lead roles, including Keeley Hawes (Bodyguard), David Oyelowo (Selma), Rupert Penry-Jones (The Strain), and Matthew Macfadyen (Succession).
Number of seasons: 10
Average episode length: 60 minutes
Where to watch: US: Britbox UK: BBC iPlayer
'The Night Manager'
This one-off series, based on the novel by thriller author John le Carré, sees Johnathon Pine (Tom Hiddleston, The Avengers), a former British soldier who now works as the night manager of a Cairo hotel. A relationship with a local sees him discover information connecting illegal arms sales to British billionaire Richard Roper (a brilliantly insidious performance by House’s Hugh Laurie). With a top-notch cast including Olivia Colman and Tobias Menzies (The Crown), the drama met with huge critical acclaim, and a shelf-full of awards, including a hat trick of gongs for Colman, Hiddleston and Laurie at the Golden Globes. This is top drawer stuff.
Number of seasons: 1
Average episode length: 58 minutes
Where to watch: US: Amazon Prime Video UK: Amazon Prime Video
Not the seemingly never-ending series of films with Tom Cruise, this is the original TV version, another classic from the sixties spy boom. Famous for its ‘this tape will self-destruct in five seconds’ opening, the series sees the Impossible Mission Force — consisting of spies who are expert in a certain field — take on hazardous missions on behalf of the government.
Headed up by Jim Phelps (Peter Graves, 7th Heaven) regulars included Martin Landau and Barbara Bain (Space 1999) as well as two seasons with Star Trek legend Leonard Nimoy.
Each week, the team was briefed on a mission, which might be anything from international espionage to domestic gangland trouble, and set out to complete it using their unique skills. The fast-moving show brought more filmic feel to the TV genre, with slick visuals and intertwining storylines.
Number of series: 7
Number of episodes: 171
Episode length: 50 minutes
Where to watch: US: Paramount+ UK: Amazon Prime Video
'Deutschland 83, 86 and 89'
A hit in both the US and the UK, despite being aired in its original German language, the Deutschland saga begins in 1983, in a divided Germany. Martin Rauch (Jonas Nay) is a green 24-year-old East German soldier who finds himself moved from his quiet post as a security guard and is placed as an undercover spy in West Germany. With a new identity, he is charged with gathering military secrets, uncovering doublecrossing and nefarious networks as he does.
A further series followed, set in 1986, before another set in 1989, the year the Berlin Wall fell, which sees Martin’s world thrown into turmoil while he struggles to work out his next move to ensure survival.
A stylish thriller, Deutschland explores a fascinating time in European history from a new angle.
Number of series: 3
Average Episode Length: 45 mins
Where to watch: US: Hulu UK: All4
This series’ unique premise saw each season presents 24 action-packed hours in the life of Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland), a US counter-terrorist agent. Each episode covers one hour, with a clock displayed as the action plays out. The first series sees Jack called into protect a senator from an assassination plot, as well as rescue his family from those responsible. Later series see him spend his days stopping a nuclear bomb from exploding in Los Angeles, infiltrating a Mexican drugs cartel and intercepting terrorists seizing a consignment of deadly nerve gas.
A smash hit from launch, at nine seasons its now officially the US TV’s longest-running spy drama. Although known for big twists, the series also dives into the private life of the characters and the moral dilemmas they often face.
And if nine season aren’t enough for you, there’s also 2017 spin-off 24: Legacy which gives the 24 treatment to other characters.
Number of seasons: 9
Average episode length: 46 minutes.
Where to watch: US: Hulu UK: Disney+
A tense political and psychological thriller, Homeland sees Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis, Band of Brothers) lauded a hero when he’s rescued from Al-Quadea after being imprisoned for nine years.
However, CIA officer Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes, My So-Called Life) is convinced the soldier was "turned" during his captivity, and his release is part of a terrorist plot to be carried out on US soil. But as Carrie becomes more and more convinced she’s right, little does she know the path the pair’s relationship is about to take.
A smash hit, the series easily survived the departure of Lewis as Brody after three seasons, running for another five years as we continued Carrie‘s story.
Number of seasons: 8
Average episode length: 45 minutes
Where to watch: US: Hulu UK: Netflix
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Steven is a writer, editor, and commentator with a passion for popular TV and soap operas. He spent 20 years as the editor of Inside Soap magazine, documenting every punch-up and pucker-up in the Street, the Square and the village. As a feature writer, he’s covered TV crime dramas, period dramas and even some real-life star dramas. He’s been seen as a talking head on more TV clip shows than he cares to remember, has a life-long passion for TV sci-fi – the older and creakier the better – and is a slight obsessive about any reality show featuring hotels.
By Ural Garrett