Intelligent programming

Intelligence is currrently showing on Sky1 after just finishing it’s first season in the US.  It’s a smart, slick action thriller set in the world of security and espionage, with a modern take on the Bionic Man.  After a reasonable pilot, after 2 episodes I was hooked, and therefore disappointed to learn that it hadn’t yet been renewed for a second season.

So whilst it’s still up in the air, despite strong receiption in the UK and Australia, with even writer Michael Seitzman waiting for an answer I thought I’d add my 2p.  With a bit of luck it might get people our side of the pond to have a closer look and give the studio execs and number crunchers something to think about.

For me there are two main reasons the show really stands out: the portrayal and usage of technology, and the characters.  Especially the female characters, which don’t serve to fill a damsel in distress role, or to reflect the glory of the male protagonist.  That’s a rare thing in any drama, but so far all the main parts, and even the guest actors have been well rounded, believable and interesting.

The portrayal of technology

Like most geeks of a technical disposition, it is grating to see technology badly portrayed in TV and Film.  In various forms, it appears as uncecessary gloss which doesn’t add to the plot or explain the peril of the situation.  Bad or inappropriate use of technical terms can also make you cringe.  I give you this infamous scene from NCIS, in which a hack attack is foiled by using two people at the same keyboard.


A lot of shows might explain every single technical point in detail, or have a secondary character ask for an explanation of something that’s not really important to the plot (e.g. Arrow, Criminal Minds).  Here they’re pretty accurate, and only expand in dialogue when it’s necessary. Even then the lines are so quick I think non-techies might miss it.  I don’t think that’s important to a layman’s understanding of the scene but for me it gives an unparallelled authenticity.

For example, in Episode 4 the team are discussing what and who would be needed to enhance a rogue nation’s missile programme.  There’s a quick to and fro between the two main scientists, and then a run through of the Universities that do research in that area.  It’s only a short scene, but adds a lot of weight to the peril of the situation, and the process that follows of finding the target.

Another example comes in Episode 2, with a suicide bomber using novel plastic explosive and getting past security checkpoints, the subsequent investigation and discussions with the manufacturer, all these moments feel very genuine and realistic.

The Concept: a 6 Million Dollar Man for the 21st Century

The main character is Gabriel Vaughn, played by Josh Holloway (Sawyer from Lost).  He’s an ex-special forces soldier who’s had a chip implanted in his brain as part of a top-secret government programnme under Cybercommand.  This makes him like an action version of Sherlock as he’s got a it gives him instant access to electronic devices and the internet, the ability to scan faces and pull up files as he’s talking to someone.  He can also visualise data from security cams, satellites etc, a bit like Robocop but with better pecs.

An unexpected feature of the chip is his ability to assemble data and images from a scene, freeze it, Matrix style.  He can then extrapolate from the known information, navigate around in a dreamlike state looking for clues. This is the best use I’ve seen of that technique since The Matrix, and rather than come across as a gimmick, it’s a tool which just makes sense and is very nicely rendered.  The clip below shows how Cyber-rendering works in a scene from Episode 1.


Character is everything

Holloway’s just the right person for his character, as he’s got the physical presence and swagger for the action, but he’s so laconic that his throwaway lines, that might have seemed trite with another actor, work perfectly for him.

Because the chip is so powerful, and so deeply embedded in Gabriel, the US Cybercomm protect him as their most valuable weapon, as important as the Manhattan Project was.    Given he’s an ex-special forces guy prone to all the character flaws that comes with, the President himself assigns his best Secret Service agent Riley Neal (Meghan Ory) to keep tabs on him.  There is absolutely no doubt that she is the absolute best person for the job, and works well with Gabriel.  It’s a rare thing to have a female co-star without there having to be some kind of love interest or rescue, but she is absolutely clear on her role and confident in her abilities.  E.g. in Episode 4:

Gabriel: “Are you crazy, you can’t shoot on a plane!”
Riley: “It only matters if I miss.”

Marg Helgenberger is the other lead female character, as the Director of the programme that developed Gabriel’s chip and leader of the his support team.  Like Riley, Lillian Strand is absolutely the right person for her job.   She’s directing a superpowerful weapon and his support team in highly dangerous and politically sensitive missions, and at the same time has to recognise and protect his vulnerable human side.

She’s an incredible intelligence agent, and has to deal with the politics of inter-agency rivalry, as this excellent dialogue from Episode 4 shows.  Here, Lillian is meeting covertly with the Director of Central Intelligence who’s been a bit cagey on a mission that Gabriel and Riley are on.


Lillian: “What the hell were you thinking?”

Tetazoo: “I know you’re upset, but I’d be careful if I were you. I’m still the director of the CIA.”

Lillian: “We’ve known each other for a long time, Jeff. We both know where the bodies are buried and who put them there. Are you sure you want to threaten me? You let my people drop into one of your messes without so much as a head’s up.”

Tetazoo: “It’s not like I was read in on your mission.”

Lillian: “Oh, what is this, hurt feelings?”

Tetazoo: “Don’t be ridiculous. By the time I was briefed, you were already in the middle of a hot extraction. Frankly, I was hoping I’d be thanking you right now.”

Lillian: “Please. You knew your agent wouldn’t leave that prison.

Tetazoo: “That was a field call, not an order.”

Lillian: “Did Weatherly know?…What are you looking for? You think I’m set up on you?”

Tetazoo: ” Are you?”

Lillian: “No. But I am clocking two of your pavement artists right now. You’ve had me in a floating box since I left Angel’s Bluff.”

Tetazoo: “Weatherly didn’t know. The President still doesn’t. If we told 1600 that the Syrian’s are right, that the prisoners are spooks, it’d leak inside of twenty four hours. The White House is a sieve. It always has been. Did your people learn anything else from their visit to the prison? Anything I need to know?”

Lillian: “Just the scientist and we’re empty on that so far. Is there anything else we should have asked about?”

Tetazoo: “Not that I’m aware of.”

Lillian: “Nothing much changes at Langley, does it?”

Tetazoo: “One of the things I learned from your father – change is not always progress. I assume you’ll let me know if you find the scientist.”

Lillian: “Of course.”

I think this scene also gives a sense of the pace and natural authenticity of the dialogue: the references to operational terms, the security leaks in politics, the prickly relationship between these two agents.  The rest of the characters are interesting: e.g. the brilliant scientist father & son pairing, which might have seemed like a ripoff from Fringe, works well.  And when you have several well written female characters it’s not hard to have moments that pass the Bechdel Test.

I think whilst this series could be procedural, i.e. “drop the special agent into the situation of the week”, the continued interest will be from the dichotomy of Gabriel’s having access to knowledge on everything but needing to trust others. Conversely, his unshakable faith that his wife was (is?) deep undercover whilst all evidence says she’s turned terrorist.


I hope that’s given you a taster without spoiling too much.  Given the strength of characters, the authenticity of the dialogue, it would be stupid if a show as well written as Intelligence wasn’t renewed by CBS.



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About loidon

Technical support in an IT-centric academic department. Jack of all trades, master of none. Able to bluff on most subjects!

2 responses to “Intelligent programming”

  1. Jenn H says :

    I can’t say any more than you did. A very intelligently (yes, I know, a pun and a bad one at that) written article about many of the reasons why I love this show so much.

    For me it gave real characters, ones I could relate to, with real emotions, not just for each other but for what their characters were involved in.

    The show was smartly written. A great balance of drama with some comedic moments thrown in, not in awkward expected places but in the unexpected places.

    Thank you for sharing such a great article!

  2. loidon says :

    Thanks for your kind words Jen! Unfortunately the show was cancelled at the weekend, and unless another channel picks it up, looks like Clockwork’s going to be wound down.

    Interestingly, I’ve found the twitter comments about Intelligence and the cancellation have been mostly from women. They’re also usually about how they loved the Lillian & Riley characters, rather than fangirl comments about Gabriel/Josh (which one might have expected).


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