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I once had a friend who said he never told a lie, because lying requires too much work.

So imagine if your whole life was not just one lie, but so many that you lose track of who you really are. That’s the underlying theme of the British spy series, MI-5, which ran from 2002-2011, covering 10 years in the operations of their domestic counter-terrorism unit.

MI-5 is an ensemble show, led by the Director, Harry Pearce (Peter Firth), the only character who appears in every one of the 86 episodes. The remainder of the cast changes over the years, doing all the great spy stuff we’d expect: surveillance and field work, foiling plots against foreign visitors, attacks on mosques or temples, blocking attempts to upend the banking industry, blow up the water supply, shut down the electronic grid, or even nuke the country–-you name it, they do it--surreptitiously.

But beyond that, each episode includes a study about the human cost of the job for one of the agents. The loss of innocence, the near-sociopathic capacity to lie without blinking, the constant threat to loved ones--it reveals the hearts of people who become emotionally tortured or permanently hardened by carrying out their duties. In the end, they all ask the same questions: How can you tell the good guys from the bad guys? And have I become one of the bad guys?

It’s natural that MI-5 might be compared to 24 Hours, the similar series starring Kiefer Sutherland--but there are some major differences. The American series is much more action-oriented, featuring Jack Bauer’s legendary scorched-earth rages. In contrast, the Brits are…well, very British. When Harry Pearce gets really angry—at a time when the clock’s ticking down to, say, a 747 crashing on London--he might sit down at a local Gentlemen's Club with the treasonous politician involved, and have a Very Stern Conversation with him.

It’s common for a series that runs this long to find its plot lines becoming redundant, and that happens around Season 9. Nevertheless, it’s still a great romp for any lover of spy stories, and the protagonist Harry Pearce is a wise, no-nonsense leader you’d want to have running your intelligence service. The characters are well drawn, intense, and heroically flawed, and there’s a great balance between suspense and the human element. The surveillance technology has more than enough wow-factor to satisfy the über-geek in all of us.

Finally, kudos to the producers of MI-5 for doing something astonishing: they close each episode to black, without credits. They felt this would drive home the isolation and anonymity of the employees of the intelligence service--and it does.

MI-5 was extremely popular in Britain for the years it ran, garnering their BAFTA awards for Best Drama series, Best actor and Actress for several years running. It can be addictive, so be forewarned: if you’ve got binge-TV tendencies, stock up on chips and ice cream. You’ve got some marathon weekends ahead.

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