“We are not policemen, we are spies,” goes the famous John le Carre quote from his novel A Most Wanted Man. “We do not arrest our targets. We develop them and redirect them at bigger targets. When we identify a network, we watch it, we listen to it, we penetrate it, and by degrees we control it.”
That’s not only one of my all-time favorite quotes from a spy novel; it’s something of a yardstick, at least to me, that separates the wheat from the chaff. As a fan of the genre, I’m not really looking for a John Wick-style protagonist who shoots his way out of trouble. I want the hall of mirrors, the grey of the secret world, the blurred lines, and compromises. I want a John le Carre-style puzzle box, something we don’t always get in the books, movies, and TV shows about spies and their craft. Luckily, there are exceptions that stand out — like the seven titles below that I’ve rounded up from across the streaming universe and which ought to be on the radar of any lover of spy and spy-adjacent series.
7 streaming spy series
If you’re a fan of spy stories and espionage thrillers and are looking for something new to stream, here’s a list of shows to start with — and we’ll kick things off with a Netflix gem.
Kleo is a slick and incredibly addictive German-language spy series that should appeal to fans of shows like Killing Eve and The Americans. The show is a Cold War-era espionage thriller, one in which the titular protagonist is an East German spy who has just spent two years in prison when we meet her. She’s abruptly released upon the dismantling of the Berlin Wall and quickly sets out on a revenge spree that leads from Berlin to improvised electro clubs and Mallorcan fincas all the way to Chile’s Atacama Desert.
As for Kleo — the show, that is, which currently has a 92% critics’ score on Rotten Tomatoes — you know you’re in for a fun spy romp that doesn’t take itself too seriously even before the opening shot in Episode 1, which is of an alley not far from the Berlin Wall in the East Berlin of 1987. Before that, there’s a title card, greeting us with the following tongue-in-cheek intro:
“This is a true story.”
“None of this ever happened.”
The US is still regarded as the so-called “Main Enemy” of Russia, which is to say this next show probably hits the closest to home out of all the spy dramas on this list.
The Americans is a fictionalized version of the long game both the Russia of today, as well as the Soviet empire of old, have played when it comes to espionage. From the official show description:
“Co-starring Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys, The Americans is a period drama about the complex marriage of two KGB spies posing as Americans in suburban Washington, D.C., during the Reagan administration. The arranged marriage of Philip and Elizabeth Jennings grows more passionate and genuine by the day, but as the pressures and demands of the job grow heavier, the personal toll becomes almost too exhausting to bear, especially when it comes to protecting their American-born children, Paige and Henry. They also face the risk of discovery by their friend and neighbor FBI agent Stan Beeman, who is tasked with uncovering Soviet illegals hiding in plain sight.”
Apple TV+ spy shows
Moving right along, Apple’s streaming service Apple TV+ also has two must-watch spy shows that I can’t say enough good things about: Tehran and Slow Horses.
The latter, with a star-studded cast that includes Gary Oldman and Kristin Scott Thomas, is an adaptation of Mick Herron’s spy novels that have made him something of an heir apparent to the late master of the genre himself, le Carre.
The title Slow Horses is derived from Slough House, the name of the fictional MI5 branch where outcasts and screw-ups are sent to spend the remainder of their time with the service — and it might as well be a continent away from MI5’s glittering Regent’s Park headquarters. At Slough House, spies like River Cartwright work under the auspices of the crass, crude, and perpetually farting (but deceptively brilliant) Jackson Lamb.
In its sophomore season, in my opinion, Slow Horses got even better — trading the mid-2000s-era terrorist plot of the first season for a much more relevant Russia-focused storyline. The third season ratcheted up the quality even more. This time around, the rogue’s gallery of misfits at Slough House was called upon to punch above their weight and unravel a conspiracy that finds one of their own taken hostage. Meanwhile, Gary Oldman’s Jackson Lamb — an acerbic slob of a spymaster who looks like he’s spent one too many nights drowning his sorrows at a sketchy pub — also gets caught up in palace intrigue at The Park, the agency’s head office where a power struggle leads to a steadily increasing body count in the field.
While you’re waiting on Slow Horses to return, meanwhile, make sure you also check out Tehran — a seemingly ripped-from-the-headlines Israeli drama on Apple’s streamer from creator Moshe Zonder, head writer for the excellent thriller Fauda on Netflix.
Tehran’s narrative hangs on Mossad hacker/spy Tamar Rabinyan who’s dropped deep inside Iran — into its capital city, in fact, as the show’s title suggests. She’s there to hack into and disarm the defenses of an Iranian nuclear reactor that the Israelis want to bomb. Needless to say, it goes wrong — and it keeps going wrong. She has to improvise her way towards mission success, and staying alive.
Shaun Toub, who was born in Iran and plays the character of Faraz Kamali, posted on his Instagram a clip from Season 2, which hit Apple TV+ in May of last year. “I already miss Tehran,” he wrote. “Can’t wait for Season 3.”
Three more shows to check out
These next titles, meanwhile, are spread across three different streamers: Hulu, Prime Video, and Sundance Now.
The Old Man
Another spy series based on a novel, FX’s The Old Man (which you can watch on Hulu if you don’t have cable or don’t have the FX channel in your cable package) stars Jeff Bridges and John Lithgow as Dan Chase and Harold Harper — two characters from an older generation of spooks who find themselves caught up in a new version of The Game that they probably didn’t realize they’d still be playing in their twilight years.
The series is based on Thomas Perry’s 2017 novel of the same name. More so than many of the other titles on this list, you actually don’t have to care one bit about spies or espionage to appreciate the masterful storytelling and strong collection of acting talent here that will keep you on the edge of your seat through all seven episodes.
The season ends on a huge cliffhanger, by the way, but not to worry — FX has already ordered up a second season of the show.
Mr. & Mrs. Smith
Prime Video’s Mr. & Mrs. Smith is, at least to me, pretty Kleo-like in its aesthetic and its characterizations. And, obviously, I mean that as the highest of praise.
If a spy show isn’t setting out to focus on verisimilitude, and by that I mean fidelity to real-world tradecraft, I at least expect well-developed and engaging characters who don’t act like borderline superheroes. They should be out of breath after a run. They shouldn’t have an implied forcefield around them that renders them impervious to bad-guy bullets. And obviously, they don’t need to wear a Bond tux, with a Bond girl who’s dressed to the nines.
On that score, Mr. & Mrs. Smith (starring Donald Glover and Maya Erskine as sexy and glamorously globe-trotting rival spies) delivers, and then some. The characters are memorable, the dialogue is sharp and witty, and the action scenes are taut and propulsive.
“In this version of Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” explains the official Prime Video synopsis, “two lonely strangers land jobs working for a mysterious spy agency that offers them a glorious life of espionage, wealth, world travel, and a dream brownstone in Manhattan. The catch? New identities in an arranged marriage as Mr. and Mrs. John and Jane Smith.
“Now hitched, John and Jane navigate a high-risk mission every week while also facing a new relationship milestone. Their complex cover story becomes even more complicated when they catch real feelings for each other. What’s riskier: Espionage or marriage?”
The showrunner here, by the way, is Francesca Sloane, whose previous credits include working as a writer on Glover’s wonderful FX series Atlanta.
This brings us to my personal favorite, the French-language thriller The Bureau (aka Le Bureau des Legendes).
Much of the action in this spy series from France takes place in and around an office — specifically, a bureau of the Dírection Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure (or DGSE), France’s equivalent of the CIA. That makes this series something of a workplace drama, albeit one that’s interrupted by plenty of sequences in the field, as well as of sumptuous Parisian vistas for audiences to lust over, not to mention spooks hunched over computers or around conference room tables, mapping out operations that unfold a long way from home.
In each season, the bureau stares down existential threats to France and its agents, including everything from ISIS terrorists to Russian hackers. You’ll watch DGSE agents, analysts, bureaucrats, and bosses study files, dispatch orders, and monitor events in real-time, and you’ll hang on to every word.
Creator Eric Rochant spoke with us about the series back in 2020.