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6 Shows like 24: International Espionage

Will Howell-Cornes itcherOnce or twice a decade, a show comes along that changes TV. In the nineties it was ‘Twin Peaks’ and ‘The X-Files’, and in the noughties that honour fell to ‘Lost’ and ‘24’. Shot in real time – each episode was one hour in a 24-hour day, this was the most explosive action series of all time. But what other TV shows like ‘24’ give you that edge-of-your-seat feeling? From ‘Alias’ to ‘The Breakout Kings’ here’s my rundown… ~ Will Howell-Cornes

I’m Jack Bauer and This Is the Longest Day of My Life

Kiefer Sutherland’s Jack Bauer has everything a spy needs; muscles, experience and a willingness to go further (always cleverly postulating how much interrogation is too far) than his comrades. He even has the correct initials for a spy.

Nothing hit the adrenaline-fuelled heights of season one when Jack’s wife and daughter are kidnapped. The real time element (an idea borrowed from Hitchcock and films like ‘Nick of Time’) and quad-split screen telling up to four different story threads at once added to dramatic tension. The series did kinda jump the shark in season two with Kim and the mountain lion, but all seasons had their jaw-dropping double-crossing, conspiracies and oh, how I miss those cliffhangers.


Shows Similar to ’24’…

‘Spooks’ (BBC, 2002-2011)

Re-branded ‘MI-5’ in The States, ‘Spooks’ was Britain’s answer to ‘24’. Running for ten seasons, the show tells the tale of Harry Pearce and his London-based counter-terrorist unit ‘The Grid’. A smaller budget, hour-long running time and traditional, linear narrative meant more dialogue, less running around and fewer explosions. That said, it had just as many security threats, double agents and a far deeper look at what makes them tick.

Similarity Match: 90%
‘Spooks’ may be slow for an American audience, especially when mentioned in the same sentence as ’24’, but still makes for riveting storytelling.

‘Homeland’ (Showtime, 2011)

Carrie Mathison is the only C.I.A. agent to believe that Marine Sniper Nicholas Brody, rescued after eight years of al-Qaeda imprisonment, has been “turned” and poses a terrorist threat to national security. But as brilliant an agent as Carrie is, in a genius plot device, she happens to be bi-polar, kinda paranoid and not to be trusted.

Based on an Israeli series ‘Prisoners of War’ and spanning five seasons (at the time of writing) ‘Homeland’ is an intelligent, finely written and acted spy drama. Claire Danes, Damian Lewis and Mandy Patinkin (from ‘The Princess Bride’) turn in great performances.

Similarity Match: 85%
Again, less thrill-a-minute than ‘24’, ‘Homeland’ has had to soft reboot itself, with each season feeling fresher and more relevant than Kiefer Sutherland’s series.

‘Sleeper Cell’ (Showtime, 2005-2006)

Before ‘Homeland’, Showtime wanted a piece of the counter-terrorist pie and delivered this exciting series similar to ‘24’ – Muslim and undercover F.B.I. agent, Darwyn Al-Sayeed infiltrates a terrorist sleeper cell who are planning to attack Los Angeles. Michael Ealy (Almost Human) and his mesmerizing eyes starred in a show that, unfortunately, only lasted two seasons.

Similarity Match: 80%
With many critics citing it as better than ‘24’, this series definitely had more of a heart and soul, even depicting the terrorists as real people.

‘State of Affairs’ (NBC, 2014-2015)

‘State of Affairs’ details C.I.A. analyst Charleston Tucker (Katherine Heigl) serving and protecting the first female President Roberta Payton through her daily briefings on the most immediate threats to national security. The clever plot device in this series is that Tucker has PTSD and survivor’s guilt – she watched her fiance (The President’s son) die in a terrorist attack in Afghanistan.

Similarity Match: 75%
The C.I.A. and Secret Service replace ‘24’s’ specially created counter-terrorism unit and Tucker’s personal relationship with The President make for a warmer bond in a show that warranted more than its two seasons.


If You Like ’24’, You Will Like…

These four shows probably wouldn’t exist without ‘24’ but each have their own raison d’etre and (as I’ve mentioned) clever plot devices and flaws to make their heroes unique. So, if that’s our terrorist threat taken care of but where do we go from here?

Well, how about a couple more shows similar to ‘24’ that don’t explicitly deal with terrorists?

‘Alias’ (ABC, 2001-2006)

Launching the career of many of today’s Hollywood darlings (director J.J. Abrams, writing partners Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, actor Bradley Cooper and composer Michael Giacchino) ‘Alias’ was famed for its worldwide locales (though only ever filmed in L.A. and Las Vegas) supernatural prophecies, double-crosses and brilliantly choreographed action scenes. Intelligent, amusing and highly exciting Sydney Bristow’s tale is deservedly mentioned in the same breath as ‘24’.

Jennifer Garner plays girl next door Sydney Bristow, a double agent for the C.I.A. posing as an operative for SD-6 which is a worldwide criminal and espionage organization. ‘Alias’ is feminist spy-thrills cranked up to the max.

‘The Breakout Kings’ (A&E, 2011-2012)

From the producers of the preposterous yet fun ‘Prison Break’, TBK lives by the old “it takes a thief to catch a thief” cliche. While that’s obviously not true, it tells you all you need to know. Sometimes silly (but always entertaining) it provides a welcome respite from all the terrorists and in doing so harkens back to a slightly more honest time when there was still honour among thieves.

U.S. Marshals Charlie Duchamp and Ray Zancanelli assemble an unlikely team to catch escaped fugitives – a team of criminals who are themselves released from behind bars. If they help, their sentences will be halved.



The Post-9/11 world of surveillance cameras, The Patriot Act, satellites and drone attacks signalled that a new kind of spy was needed, with a new breed of anti-terrorist agency and host of new technologies to catch the bad guys. TV series like ‘24’ captured the paranoia zeitgeist well, but as the world changes, movies and TV must reflect that change, which explains why Carrie Mathison’s job and modus operandi on ‘Homeland’ changes from year to year.

Well, my cover as a writer for itcher is blown – I must deliver these explosive teacakes to The Ambassador’s reception.

If you’ve got any other favourite spy shows, please leave your comments below…


Will Howell-Cornes is a writer, photographer and TV editor. He’s been trying to write three TV shows for a while now, which he hopes will be like ‘Lost’ ‘Hannibal’ and ‘The Leftovers’. He used to be a stand-up comedian but stopped being funny around July 2012.
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