We've had TV magazines, TV novels, TV movies, and now, if NBC's "The Spies Among Us" is a harbinger, we may have TV paperbacks.
The subject, tonight at 10 on Channel 4, is the Russian intelligence effort against the United States. The contents have become familiar in recent months, particularly since a Newsweek cover story on the subject. For years the Soviet Union has mounted a major and ongoing effort to spy on America. They bribe people with access to top-secret information. They intercept microwave transmissions of long-distance phone calls. They steal computer technology. They compromise, suborn, dupe and otherwise manipulate American citizens.
That's the content.
It's the style that's interesting.
The logo of the show, which is to say the drawing they flash on the screen every time they break for a commercial, shows a man in a Russian fur hat with a red star on it. He's wearing reflecting sunglasses, with old Papa Joe Stalin in one lense. He's surrounded by spook paraphernalia: a camera, a microwave antenna, a printed circuit, and so on, all of it in the style that brightens paperback book racks across America.
And need we point out that correspondent Jessica Savitch meets all the qualifications for a spy novel heroine? She is beautiful, she is terribly serious, full of wary Dan-Rather-style pauses, and she has just the faintest touch of a lateral lisp -- those blurred "s"es like John F. Kennedy's. (When, oh liberated when, are we going to get a major female TV reporter as ugly, as, say, Charles Kuralt? Irving R. Levine? Morley Safer?)
Paperbackery persists with opening shots of a gloomy mansion on the Eastern Shore, then headlights lashing through the darkness while the voice-over says that NBC "set up a rendezvous" with a KGB defector in this former CIA safe house for defectors. A former safe house. And no matter that the KGB defector is a teacher in California with nothing to hide, and they could have interviewed him in Times Square.
This is the spy game, and you have to play by the rules.
Cut to men firing revolvers on an indoor range. Close-ups of hammers snapping, barrels bucking. The revolvers have nothing whatsoever to do with anything here, except that they're being fired at the FBI headquarters, where an official sips coffee and says that KGB efforts have intensified in recent years, particularly in the scientific and technological areas.
We get a former Soviet diplomat in sunglasses. We get a former double agent talking with the Statue of Liberty in the background. We get a jaunt to Mexico, signaled by, believe it or not, a mariachi band. We get the camera walking into a pricey restaurant as if we, the viewers, were about to be plied with absinthe and carnality for the secrets we know.
We get a lot of case histories from back in the 1960s. Old news.
There's value in alerting Mr. and Mrs. Front Porch USA to the fact that a slip of the lip can sink a ship. And since nobody would watch if it weren't for the paperback gimmicks, we need the gimmicks, until you consider that the gimmicks make the whole game more tempting by romanticizing it