“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 as good a yardstick as any for what constitutes verisimilitude and fidelity to the hall of mirrors existence that the men and women of the secret world inhabit. Fans of the genre, to be sure, have an abundance of pop culture to sample from when it comes to stories about spies and their craft — from books like le Carre’s to movies and streaming TV series. Below, we’ve rounded up seven titles from across the streaming universe that ought to be on the radar of any lover of spy and spy-adjacent series, a list that keeps getting longer all the time.
7 streaming spy series
We’ll start things off with two spy series on the biggest streamer of them all — one of which is currently the biggest Netflix series in the world.
First up is a slick and incredibly addictive German-language series on Netflix that should appeal to fans of shows like Killing Eve and The Americans.
In the Cold War-era spy thriller Kleo, 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 Berlin Wall suddenly falling 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 — 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, 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 Night Agent
This next spy-adjacent series is the aforementioned #1 Netflix show in the world at the moment — The Night Agent, based on Matthew Quirk’s novel of the same name, racked up almost 169 million hours viewed over the course of its first week of availability on Netflix. That gave the 10-episode series starring Gabriel Basso as a heroic FBI agent, the third-best first-week showing ever for a series on Netflix.
Creator Shawn Ryan has described the series as “All The President’s Men with car chases.” From the official Netflix synopsis:
“The Night Agent is a sophisticated, character-based, action-thriller centering on a low-level FBI Agent who works in the basement of the White House, manning a phone that never rings — until the night that it does, propelling him into a fast-moving and dangerous conspiracy that ultimately leads all the way to the Oval Office.”
Apple TV Plus spy series
Moving right along, Apple’s streaming service has not one, but two must-watch spy shows: 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, perpetually farting (but deceptively brilliant) Jackson Lamb.
Season 2 of Slow Horses debuted on Apple TV+ back in December, and two more seasons are on the way.
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 TV+ 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’s streaming TV service back in May. “I already miss Tehran,” he wrote. “Can’t wait for Season 3.”
In response to a commenter asking when the new season would arrive, he answered, “next year.” And to another, who asked when filming would begin, he responded: “December.”
Three more shows to check out
These next titles 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 finds 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.
Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan
Prime Video’s Jack Ryan is another all-around solid and action-packed spy series, and its third season just hit Amazon’s streamer in December.
The cast includes John Krasinski in the title role, with Wendell Pierce and Michael Kelly reprising their roles as CIA Officer James Greer and former CIA Officer Mike November, respectively. Also joining the cast this season are Nina Hoss as Czech President Alena Kovac and Betty Gabriel as CIA Rome Station Chief Elizabeth Wright.
From Prime Video’s summary of Season 3:
“In the third season of the action-thriller series, Jack Ryan is working as a CIA case officer in Rome, when he is tipped off that the Sokol Project, a secret plan to restore the Soviet Empire, is being resurrected more than 50 years after it was thought to have been shut down. Jack embarks on a mission to confirm the intelligence, but things quickly go awry, and he is wrongly implicated in a larger conspiracy. Accused of treason, with a Red Notice out for his arrest, Jack is forced to run from his own government, if he has any hope of uncovering the rogue faction before it’s too late.”
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, 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.