Spy shows are having a moment. The Night Agent came out of nowhere last month to become one of Netflix’s biggest hits ever, hot on the heels of The Recruit, another spy show that quickly earned itself a second season. And Citadel, Amazon Prime Video’s lavishly expensive attempt to create an international James Bond-style espionage action franchise from scratch, will become a hit out of financial necessity.
Polygon is diving into the world of espionage throughout fiction and pop culture history with Deep Cover, a two-week special issue covering all sorts of spy stories and gadgets.
Amid all this spyjinx, you might find yourself wanting to go deeper into the TV spy genre. You want to watch secret agents carry out thrilling missions using all the tools at their disposal, from computer hacking to hand-to-hand combat. Because there’s nothing like a globetrotting, high-stakes thriller about people who work for an alphabet agency.
This highly classified list features the 11 best spy TV shows you may not have seen before. You don’t need a recommendation to watch classics like The Americans or Alias — you know all about them already. Instead, I’m highlighting international series and domestic hits you may have missed. This list will self-destruct after you read it, so get streaming right away.
If you’re looking for a realistic spy show, The Bureau is practically a documentary. This French series about the inner workings of the DGSE — France’s version of the CIA — is TV’s most emotionally and narratively grounded spy series this side of The Americans.
Amélie’s Mathieu Kassovitz stars as intelligence officer Guillaume Debailly, who returns home to Paris after six years undercover in Syria. He’s having a hard time readjusting to his real life, which gets even more complicated when Nadia (Zineb Triki), his Syrian girlfriend who only knows him as his alias, joins him in Paris. Meanwhile, he’s trying to locate an undercover agent named Cyclone, who has gone missing in Algeria, and training a young agent named Marina (Sara Giraudeau) for her upcoming undercover mission in Iran. Further seasons get even deeper into the personal and professional lives of Guillaume, Marina, and other DGSE staffers.
Of course The Bureau is heightened for TV, but it feels so real. The offices and wardrobes are nondescript in a way that feels meticulously planned, and the show’s workplace drama style puts the characters’ ethical dilemmas front and center. If anything, the show’s polished dialogue, Guillaume’s unstable identity, and Guillaume and Marina’s mentor-mentee relationship will remind you of Mad Men. A French, contemporary Mad Men with counterrorism instead of advertising. It ran for five seasons from 2015 to 2020. An American adaptation from director and executive producer George Clooney is in the works at Showtime.
The Bureau is available to stream on AMC Plus.
The Family Man
This Hindi-language action thriller is one of Amazon’s most-watched Indian shows, and probably a reason why one of Citadel’s first local spinoffs is set in India (The Family Man creators Raj & DK are the showrunners of Citadel India). The Family Man follows Srikant Tiwari (Manoj Bajpayee), a middle-class father of two whose family doesn’t know that his supposedly boring government job is actually about as exciting as a job can be. He works as an intelligence operative fighting domestic threats like ISIS associates and separatist groups (the show’s closing credits display the headlines the storylines were ripped from). He’s an action hero at work and a sitcom dad at home.
It’s a very fun show, with crackling action, amusing dialogue, and a great performance from Bajpayee, who’s one of Indian cinema’s most decorated actors. It will put you in mind of spy-in-the-family action comedies like True Lies and Mr. & Mrs. Smith, though it’s a little grittier than either of those. Two seasons are out so far, with a third on the way.
The Family Man is available to stream on Prime Video.
You might be intrigued by a show that blends undercover action with swooning K-drama. This romantic spy thriller follows best friends Kim Hyun-jun (Lee Byung-hun, perhaps best known stateside as Squid Game’s Front Man) and Jin Sa-woo (Jung Joon-ho), who are soldiers in an elite military unit. Separately, they’re both scouted by National Security Service agent Choi Seung-hee (Kim Tae-hee), who becomes their boss and strikes up a forbidden romance with Hyun-jun. The guys’ friendship is tested as they both fall in love with her. All the while, they’re learning how to become spies for a top-secret organization that does whatever it takes to protect against threats to South Korea.
Iris came out in 2009 and became the most-watched series in South Korea at that time. (It is also the most expensive Korean drama series to date.) Watching it now, it’s not hard to see why it got so popular. Its combination of thrilling spy action and soapy romance drama is irresistible.
Iris is available to stream on Netflix.
One of the best spy shows of the past decade was Killing Eve, the BBC series that won a bunch of Emmys and made Jodie Comer a star for her performance as sociopathic but stylish Russian assassin Villanelle. It’s a great show, but it’s a little too well-known to go in this list. Instead, I’m recommending Kleo, a German series that’s also about a female assassin, has a really appealing visual sensibility, and will surprise you with its weird sense of humor.
The fast-paced series follows Kleo Straub (Jella Haase), a young woman who works as an off-the-books contract killer for the Stasi, the East German secret police, in the waning years of the Eastern Bloc. She’s betrayed by her contacts in the agency and arrested for an act of treason she didn’t commit. She spends a few years in prison, but is released after the Berlin Wall falls. Once she’s out, she uses the techniques the Stasi taught her — like surveillance, honeypotting, and various methods of murder — against the former friends who wronged her.
Kleo is a hybrid spy-revenge thriller that’s one of the most consistently entertaining shows Netflix has released in a long while. Kleo’s outfits are dope as hell, and in a cooler world, her blue tracksuit would have been a popular Halloween costume last year. The show has a vibrant color palette that cleverly subverts the austere expectations for a show set in Communist Europe. And it will catch you off guard with jokes you’re not expecting.
Season 1 came out last summer, and it was quietly one of Netflix’s best shows of 2022. If you want to watch a German spy-thriller period piece, Netflix is the place to go. Kleo has been renewed for season 2, so if you watch season 1 now, you’ll have something fun to look forward to.
Kleo is available to stream on Netflix.
The Little Drummer Girl
In 2018, the year before she broke out with Midsommar and Little Women, Florence Pugh starred in this chic BBC/AMC limited series. Based on a novel by legendary spy fiction writer (and actual former spy) John le Carré and directed by acclaimed filmmaker Park Chan-wook, The Little Drummer Girl is a sexy and sophisticated thriller in the vein of The Day of the Jackal.
Pugh plays Charlie, a young British actress who has radical leftist sympathies but not convictions. During a vacation in Greece in the summer of 1979, she meets a mysterious, handsome stranger named Gadi (Alexander Skarsgård), who turns out to be an Israeli intelligence officer. He introduces her to his boss, Martin (Michael Shannon), who recruits her for the performance of a lifetime: infiltrating a group of Palestinian radicals who recently killed the 8-year-old son of an Israeli diplomat and are planning more violence. As Charlie and Gadi travel across Europe role-playing as a revolutionary couple in order to build a physical and emotional backstory for her, she falls in love with him. He keeps his own feelings close to the vest, and Charlie doesn’t know when he’s sincere and when he’s manipulating her on behalf of his mission.
Park uses ’70s-style snap zooms and whip pans to great effect, and Pugh and Skarsgård look fantastic in the era’s fashions. Park is more interested in aesthetics and character than plot, and the slow-paced story isn’t very suspenseful. But Pugh is extraordinary as a young woman whose ill-defined sense of self is both an asset and a liability.
The Little Drummer Girl is of a piece with The Night Manager, another stylish BBC/AMC le Carré adaptation from the mid–to-late-’10s. The Night Manager is terrific and could have gone on this list, but since it won Emmys and Golden Globes and just got renewed for a second season, we’re recommending the comparatively underrated Little Drummer Girl instead, if just so you can watch Flo become a superstar in retrospect.
The Little Drummer Girl is available to stream on AMC Plus.
Mission: Impossible is the rare franchise where the remake has eclipsed the original, but the original is still totally enjoyable. The 1966 series doesn’t have anything as wild as Tom Cruise hanging off the side of a plane while it takes off, but it will still suck you in if you start watching. It was one of the best shows of its era — it won the Drama Series Emmy twice — and is worth rediscovering if you’re on the hunt for a cool old show with a lot of episodes.
The episodic formula should be familiar to anyone who has seen a Mission: Impossible movie. An agent from a mysterious, clandestine spy organization gets a death-defying mission, should they choose to accept it, and puts together a team of spies for the task. They work together to catch the bad guy, using various methods of espionage, including disguises, high-tech gadgetry, and good old-fashioned muscle.
It looks great — Martin Landau’s bright blue eyes really pop on celluloid — and Lalo Schifrin’s iconic score still slaps no matter how many times you’ve heard it. It’s a great show to just let play on Pluto TV, where it has its own channel.
Mission: Impossible is available to stream on Paramount Plus and for free with ads on Pluto TV.
The Old Man
Ask your dad if the biggest sleeper hit of 2022 is good. He’ll tell you all about how complex the characters are and how great Jeff Bridges and John Lithgow are at acting. And he’s absolutely right.
Bridges stars as Dan Chase, a CIA agent who went AWOL 30 years prior and has been living off the grid since then. He had a family, but now his wife is dead and his daughter is semi-estranged. He lives with two very well-trained Rottweilers. One night, his low-key existence is interrupted when a hitman breaks into his home. After killing the intruder, Chase knows his cover has been blown and the agency is after him, so he goes on the run. FBI assistant director Harold Harper (Lithgow) is brought in to lead the pursuit, because he and Chase go way back. They share a dark secret about something that happened during the Soviet-Afghan War, and they’re well-matched rivals. Chase uses all the espionage tricks he learned as a CIA operative to evade capture — it’s been a long time, but he’s still (mostly) got it — while Harper knows what makes Chase tick.
The FX series boasts taut action and strong writing, with soulful performances from Bridges, Lithgow, and an ensemble cast that includes Amy Brenneman, Gbenga Akinnagbe, and Alia Shawkat. It’s been renewed for a second season, so if you didn’t watch it last summer, get caught up now so that you and your dad have something to talk about.
The Old Man is available to stream on Hulu.
There’s no other spy show like Patriot. As a matter of fact, there are very few shows like Patriot in any genre, and the ones that are were probably also created by singularly odd filmmaker Steven Conrad (Perpetual Grace Ltd., Ultra City Smiths). Patriot is a sublimely weird, pitch-black comedy that fans of shows like Atlanta and Barry would enjoy if only they knew about it.
For All Mankind’s Michael Dorman stars as John Tavner, a depressed intelligence agent who moonlights as a singer-songwriter. He goes undercover by getting a job at a Milwaukee-based industrial engineering firm that frequently does business in Luxembourg, where he is to pass along money to support the CIA’s preferred candidate in an upcoming Iranian presidential election. Of course, things do not go as planned — the mission quickly spirals out of control after John’s bag of cash is stolen. And he’s so bad at his cover job that he’s in danger of being fired by his tough but understanding boss, Leslie Claret (Kurtwood Smith, who is magnificent here). His desperate efforts to get the mission back on track never, ever go how you expect them to.
The plot is thrilling, but simply describing what happens doesn’t express what makes Patriot so special. What makes Patriot so unique are moments like when John sings a rueful expository folk song in the pilot, filling in his backstory, that begins, “In June 2011, the United States learned that Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was fucking around with new centrifuges,” or when he gets attacked by five Brazilian jiu-jitsu fighters and has to stab his way out. Patriot just consistently hits a sweet spot of absurdist comedy and dark, sad character drama.
Patriot ran for two under-promoted seasons on Amazon Prime Video in 2017 and 2018, and I implore you to not let the fact that it was canceled before its time deter you from starting this true hidden gem of a series.
Patriot is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video.
Queen Sono is a slick spy thriller that was one of Netflix’s first South African shows. The title character, played by Pearl Thusi, is an agent for the Special Operations Group, a clandestine organization that carries out high-stakes missions in Africa. She’s also the daughter of a revered freedom fighter who was assassinated when Queen was a child. So while Queen works to bring down a private military company/crime family, she’s also trying to find out who killed her mother and bring them to justice. Oh, and her ex-boyfriend Shandu (Vuyo Dabula) works for the evil company now.
It’s a twisty, soapy series that shows off a part of the world you don’t usually see depicted this way. Queen is a glamorous secret agent in the vein of Sydney Bristow or Nikita Mears, only instead of working for some kind of fantastical government agency, she’s dealing with the real-world problem of colonizers trying to impose their will on her continent.
Queen Sono premiered in February 2020. It was initially renewed for a second season, but it was one of the unfortunate shows that got unrenewed due to COVID-19 driving production costs up. The six-episode first and only season is still worth watching for its sense of place and Thusi’s performance.
Queen Sono is available to stream on Netflix.
This British spy show is the anti-James Bond.
Based on a series of novels by Mick Herron, Slow Horses follows a group of intelligence officers who operate out of Slough House, a boring MI5 administrative outpost where the agency sends agents it can’t fire but wants to punish. The house is led by Jackson Lamb (Gary Oldman). Lamb has a slovenly appearance and a verbally abusive temperament, and he’s at Slough House because he pissed off the wrong people. But he’s still a brilliant spy. When he finds out his ambitious new charge River Cartwright (Jack Lowden) — who’s been exiled to Slough House for an embarrassing public mistake — is doing an off-the-books investigation of domestic far-right terrorists, he wants in.
Slow Horses is a workmanlike spy thriller that distinguishes itself with its witty dialogue and Oldman’s top-tier performance. He wears a dirty raincoat, rips nasty farts, and is clearly having a ton of fun. Two seasons have been released, and it’s already been renewed for two more.
Slow Horses is available to stream on Apple TV Plus.
Tehran is a well-written, character-driven geopolitical thriller that feels more like Homeland than any other show on this list. Its tonal seriousness gives it gravity, but its taut plotting keeps it enjoyable.
The Israeli series tells the story of Tamar Rabinyan (Niv Sultan), a Persian-Jewish Mossad agent and computer hacker who goes undercover in the titular Iranian capital city. Her mission is to infiltrate and hack the electric company and shut down the power grid so the Israeli Air Force can bomb a nuclear plant without being detected by Iran’s air defense systems. The plan goes sideways, and she finds herself stranded in the country of her birth that’s the enemy of her adopted home. With no way to get back to Israel, she turns to her family members for help. In season 2, she goes back to Tehran to save someone she couldn’t save in season 1.
Tehran’s production value has attracted high-quality Hollywood actors — Glenn Close starred in season 2, and the in-production third season is adding Hugh Laurie. If you like thought-provoking thrillers that get deep into the psyche of someone with a dangerous and difficult job, Tehran does it really well.
Tehran is available to stream on Apple TV Plus.