Spy Shows for Adults and Kids Alike Sneak onto Streaming Services
Glória and Harriet the Spy target different demographics for surveillance fun.
- Glória. Available now on Netflix.com
- Harriet the Spy. Available now on Apple TV+.
Espionage is one of television's earliest genres—the enticingly paranoid Cold War counterintelligence drama I Led 3 Lives ("Citizen. Communist. And counterspy.") debuted in 1953 and lasted, in reruns and syndication, until approximately the end of time. Even after glam James Bond fantasies gave way to revelations about shellfish toxin, covert LSD dosing and other aspects of the seamy underbelly of intelligence work, spy shows retain an endless fascination for viewers.
The latest two additions to the stable come via premium streaming services and, at least superficially, couldn't be more different. Glória is a Portuguese-made drama reeking of the kind of Cold War amorality that made John LeCarre's novels wildly popular with both hawks and doves. (Don't be scared off by the Portuguese; Netflix is offering a vast array of translation options, including a peculiar one in which the show is dubbed into British English and subtitled in American English, compelling evidence that we threw their language overboard with the tea.)
And over on Apple TV+ there's Harriet the Spy, a cartoon adaptation of a very—very—odd 1964 children's book about a sociopathic little rich girl who prefers burglary and surveillance to Barbie and Ken that, in its way, presaged Bart Simpson and the South Park kids. Some of its claws have been pulled for the show, but enough remain for a good session of "What were mom and dad thinking?"
Glória is set in 1968 in a jittery Portugal, where the right-wing Salazar dictatorship is besieged by communist guerrillas in its African colonies, Soviet militarism near its borders, and overbearing American allies at home. Ground zero of this political crossfire is the little town of Glória do Ribatejo, northeast of Lisbon, where a shortwave radio station known as RARET beams Radio Free Europe propaganda across the Iron Curtain.
When RARET plots to broadcast an interview with a Soviet general urging Russians troops to refuse orders to invade Czechoslovakia—a move that's expected at any moment—the Cold War in Glória do Ribatejo turns hot. At least three intelligence agencies—Soviet, American and Portuguese—are operating covertly at the radio station, all of them riddled with moles who make their clandestine operations into a sort of masked (and armed) ball.
A few of those masks fall quickly, at least to viewers. The leading character is João Vidal (Miguel Nunes, like most of the cast, a Portuguese television regular), the son of a senior member of the Salazar government whose family connections have gotten him a job as a station engineer. (Because the Soviets spend so much time jamming RARET, the engineers are key personnel.) But it's quickly obvious that João, a military veteran of the wars in Africa, was traumatized by the brutality and has switched sides, working for the KGB. When he manages to block the broadcast of the Soviet general's, it touches off a murderous mole hunt inside RARET in which all three spy agencies are taking bloody trophies.
But if João's allegiances seem clear, there are plenty of others cloaked in ambiguity. Can his fellow engineer and college buddy Goncalo (Alfonso Pimentel) really be just an amiable goof whose only interests are hustling women and bootlegging American rock 'n' roll records? Even the mole hunt doesn't faze Goncalo. "As long as the Cold War's hot, our jobs are guaranteed," he explains to João.
And what about all the women floating and flirting around João: the faithless translator Ursula (Joana Ribeiro), the mysterious telegrapher Mia (Victoria Guerra), or the local girl coffee-shop girl Carolina (Carolina Amaral)? Are they spies, or just sexual assignations? And if the latter, who's doing the assigning, for sex in Glória is often what von Clausewitz might have called the continuation of war by other means.
Both in tone and content, Glória somewhat resembles Spy City, the Berlin espionage thriller that aired last spring on AMC+. But its characters, including American diplomat James Wilson (Matt Rippy, Secret Diary of a Call Girl), his CIA wife Anne Wilson (Stephanie Vogt, Entourage), their Portuguese sock puppet Ramiro (João Pedro Vaz) and Soviet spymaster Alexandre Petrovsky (Adriano Luz), are even more ruthless, and their bloodshed even more horrifying. Like the history from which it springs, Glória is taut, tight and terrifying.
Harriet the Spy is probably better described as cute, though the kids' novel on which it's based was strange and arguably a little disturbing back in the day. Its hero, 11-year-old Harriet M. Welsch, wants to be a writer, and has misunderstood the standard advice to pay careful attention to the people around her to mean she should break into their homes, transcribe their conversations, and annotate them with acid observations about their breeding and manners.
Her heroes are Mata Hari and Josephine Baker; her blood enemy is the snotty, rich class president Marion Hawthorne. (Though possibly no richer or snottier than Harriet herself, who constantly backtalks her parents and teachers, lives on New York City's ruling-class Upper East Side, and has a nanny who encourages all Harriet's subversive tendencies.)
To be clear, as a kid I loved everything about the book's Harriet (except her horrifying refusal to eat anything but tomato-and-mayonnaise sandwiches), especially her bitchy defiance of adults. And I was thrilled by her creepy espionage, most of which was pointless from any practical standpoint but did satisfy what senior CIA official Archie Roosevelt called the "lust of knowing." It's probably not fair to blame Roosevelt's plotting of coups in Iraq, Syria and other bushwa little countries on Harriet; he was already 70 years old when her literary birth occurred. But some of those CIA officers blowing up caves and calling in air strikes around Jalalabad definitely got the idea from Harriet.
The version of Harriet debuting this week on Apple TV is not quite so insurrectionary. For one thing, Bart Simpson and the South Park kids have redrawn the lines of pubescent rebellion since Harriet's heyday. And the producers of the show have given her an irritatingly goody-goody cast. Consider the comparative cases of rich old Mrs. Plumber, in whose bedroom Harriet spends many days hidden behind furniture taking notes because, well, because she can.
In the book, the indolent Mrs. Plumber delights in having so much money that she never has to get out of bed. But soon Harriet eavesdrops on a conversation in which her doctor warns her she's contracted a medical condition that will leave her bedridden for the rest of her life. Mrs. Plumber is shattered by grief. The nonplused Harriet reflects—briefly—that some of the stuff you find out while spying might be unpleasant. (Tell that to the lucky CIA analysts who were assigned to collect and study Gorbachev's poop.) Then she goes right back to work.
In Apple's show, though, Mrs. Plumber is depicted as a youngish attorney who wants to apply for a bank loan in order to start a clothing store for dogs, but has grown so terrified at the prospect of change that she can't get out of bed. And Harriet's spying on her to somehow encourage her to go in there and get her money. Gag me with an axe, as the kids say.
Still, there are enough dangling threads from the old Harriet to make the new one occasionally interesting, especially if you're 11 years old, which is roughly the show's target demo. When I heard Harriet planning an op against her nemesis Marion Hawthorne, I had to laugh at her declaration: "For something this big, rules would have to be broken! Dark secrets exposed! Purple butterfly yoyo unleashed!" If you assume that "purple butterfly yoyo" is code for "exploding seashell," it sounds just like a CIA staff meeting on Castro.