25. Tom Hanson, 21 Jump Street (1987?91)
Down on Jump Street! Yes, we know technically Hanson (Johnny Depp) was an undercover narc, but in high school, that’s about as close as you can get to an international man of mystery. That hair, that smirk, that effortless way with a dainty Smith & Wesson…Depp was clearly destined for greatness.
24. Michael Scott as Michael Scarn, The Office (2011)
Michael Scott’s (Steve Carell) character in Threat Level Midnight—the action movie he wrote, directed, and starred in—is a retired agent who’s called back into the field to stop his nemesis Goldenface from blowing up the NHL All-Star Game. Any spy who has a dance named after him—”The Scarn”—deserves a place on this list.
23. Michael Wiseman, Now and Again (1999?2000)
Wiseman (Eric Close) had the brain of an average Joe (John Goodman) dumped into his super body, making for an unlikely if formidable secret agent. Imagine how many more terrorists he could have fought if he had spent less time trying to reconnect with his family, who believed he was dead. Also, imagine John Goodman trapped inside Eric Close’s body.
22. Marya, Hogan's Heroes (1966?71)
Though she appeared in only seven episodes of the World War II POW sitcom, Nita Talbot’s portrayal of a Russian minx earned her an Emmy nomination. Hogan never figured out whether she was friend or foe—and in the end he really didn’t care.
21. George Smiley, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1979)
His unshowy spycraft involved a lot of sifting through files and tracing leads, but Alec Guinness’s performance took the complex, cold Smiley to another level, making him the embodiment of Cold War-era isolation. He’s not the most exciting spy to come out of the U.K., but he’s undoubtedly the best.
20. Mrs. King, Scarecrow and Mrs. King (1983?87)
Agency operative Lee Stetson (Bruce Boxleitner) was allegedly the one in charge on most of their missions, but Kate Jackson’s Charlie’s Angels roots shone through Mrs. King’s suburban veneer of popped collars and color-coordinated sweat suits. The show was created by the producers of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, and Mrs. King was like the CIA’s cheerful den mother who was still home in time to make dinner.
19. Lancelot Link, Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp (1970?71)
The brainchild of former Carol Burnett Show and Get Smart writers, this big-budget, live-action show cast entirely with chimpanzees may not have been destined for longevity, but it did become a pop culture legend. The world’s first simian spy (Tongo) teamed up with gal pal Mata Hairi to take on the likes of Dr. Strangemind and Ali Assa Seen, all the while engaging in pie fights, riding camels, and performing in a psychedelic rock band called the Evolution Revolution.
18. Black Spy & White Spy, Spy vs. Spy (1994?98)
Antonio Prohías fled Cuba for New York in May 1960 and sold his first strip to MAD magazine 10 weeks later. Originally an anti-Castro comic, the long-running, wordless series was brought to animated life for four seasons on MADtv.
17. Sterling Archer, Archer (2009?present)
On this animated spy spoof, Archer (voiced by H. Jon Benjamin) is the smooth, wisecracking spy archetype to the extreme, as skillful in the sack as he is with a rifle. He also bravely wears turtlenecks whenever possible.
16. Napoleon Solo, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (1964?68)
Created by consultant Ian Fleming, Solo (Robert Vaughn) was the small screen’s answer to James Bond, a suave counterpart to his stoic partner, Ilya. Stan Lee credits U.N.C.L.E. as the inspiration for Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
15. Alexander Scott & Kelly Robinson, I Spy (1965?68)
Disguised as a playboy tennis pro and his brainy trainer, the duo (Bill Cosby and Robert Culp) sported the coolest clothes and coined catchphrases like ”wonderfulness.” I Spy was one of the first TV shows to shoot on location in exotic spots such as Athens, Tokyo, and Morocco, and more notably, it was the first drama to have an African-American lead.
14. Chuck Bartowski, Chuck (2007?12)
Chuck (Zachary Levi) went from having a dead-end job at Buy More to being one of the world’s most effective spies—all thanks to a supercomputer he accidentally uploaded to his brain. Over the course of five seasons, Chuck thwarted multiple government conspiracies, used a porn virus to defuse a bomb, and still found time to get the girl.
13. Rowan Pope, Scandal (2013?present)
As the reinstated head of the covert government organization B613, Rowan (Joe Morton) has one task: ensuring that the Republic survives no matter what the cost. Even after being fired as Command, he never stopped plotting behind the scenes.
12. Steve Austin, The Six Million Dollar Man (1973?78) and Jaime Sommers The Bionic Woman (1976?78)
After being injured in an aircraft accident, Steve Austin (Lee Majors) was rebuilt by scientists with $6 million worth of bionic implants that make him harder, better, faster, stronger. He became the robot spy the U.S. didn’t know it wanted. Following a pair of successful episodes with his old flame Jaime Sommers (Lindsay Wagner), a spin-off series, The Bionic Woman—and a feminist icon—was born. (As was one of the corniest sound effects in television history.)
11. Number Six, The Prisoner (1968)
Star Patrick McGoohan didn’t like guns and had a strict Catholic’s distaste for onscreen lovemaking. So it makes sense that the nameless ex-agent at the center of this classic surrealist allegory (which McGoohan also co-created) is a uniquely cerebral protagonist. Opting to engage his mysterious captors in a never-ending battle of wits, Number Six makes other spies look thuggish in comparison.
10. Elizabeth & Philip Jennings, The Americans (2013?present)
Posing as the quintessential American couple of the early ’80s, the Jenningses (Keri Russell & Matthew Rhys) are aces at using our favorite TV-tested tactics (seduction, martial arts, bad wigs) to gather sensitive intelligence for Mother Russia. Between Elizabeth’s steely resolve and Philip’s cunning emotional manipulation, they’re an incredibly adroit team in the field, if not at home with their kids.
9. Nikita, La Femme Nikita (1997?2001)
Much can be said in praise of Maggie Q’s recent run as Nikita, but Peta Wilson’s turn as the foxy assassin stands as the definitive version of the character (apologies to Anne Parillaud). Nikita’s attempts to stay true to her values in the face of demands made by her agency showed she was more than just a hitwoman with a killer pair of legs.
8. MacGyver, MacGyver (1985?92)
Incredible product placement for duct tape and Swiss Army knives. The man (Richard Dean Anderson) literally used a sleeping bag, vodka, and an oxygen tank to create a bomb that freed him from an avalanche. Boom!
7. Jim Phelps, Mission: Impossible (1967?73, 1988?90)
The self-destructive-tape-wielding Phelps unwaveringly led the Impossible Mission Force on both the original series and the 1980s revival. As enduring as the show’s theme song (which made it to No. 41 on the Billboard charts), Jim Phelps is Mission: Impossible‘s (and the TV genre’s) most iconic legacy.
6. Emma Peel, The Avengers (1966?68)
Though her name comes from a goofy pun on ”man appeal” (M Appeal, get it?), Emma’s ability to take down all manner of diabolical baddies was no joke. Intimidatingly intelligent and impeccably dressed in Carnaby Street finery (her catsuits came to be known as Emmapeelers), both Peel and star Diana Rigg were irresistible.
5. Boris Badenov & Natasha Fatale, Rocky & His Friends and The Bullwinkle Show (1959?64)
While they never failed to be foiled by Rocky and Bullwinkle, that didn’t stop these two Pottsylvanian spies from trying. With thicker-than-borscht accents that always betrayed their disguises, Boris and Natasha were two of the most popular Russian parodies from the Cold War era.
4. Carrie Mathison, Homeland (2011?present)
Thanks to a bipolar disorder that she doesn’t always keep in check, everyone has doubted Carrie’s (Claire Danes) sanity at one point or another, but the fact remains: She was the only one who suspected Brody of treason. Exceptionally dedicated, she even allowed herself to be persecuted by the media to draw a potential asset out of hiding. Also? She really knows how to rock a kaffiyeh.
3. Jack Bauer, 24 (2001?10, 2014)
What can you get done in 24 hours? Probably not as much as Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland), who has saved the world at least nine times—without even so much as a bathroom break. There aren’t that many spies out there who are as devoted to their country—and as handy with a hacksaw—as America’s hardest-working badass.
2. Maxwell Smart & Agent 99, Get Smart (1965?70)
No era of American pop culture has ever been more fixated on spies than the ’60s. So how could a series aimed at lampooning the genre as it was flourishing be anything but brilliant? (Plus, it was created by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry.) Like a James Bond/Pink Panther hybrid, the show launched one of television’s most beloved will-they-or-won’t-they couples: the blunderingly officious Maxwell Smart (Don Adams) and the stylishly sly Agent 99 (Barbara Feldon). It also introduced the world to the shoe phone, the ”cone of silence,” and catchphrases such as ”Annnnd loving it!” and ”Would you believe?”
1. Sydney Bristow, Alias (2001?06)
The grad student?turned?spy?turned?double agent experienced every possible plot twist and spy trope while working for the CIA, from being brainwashed, to being shot by her mother, to giving birth mid-mission (never mind outfoxing a huge mystical MacGuffin that derailed the show’s last two seasons). Sydney (Jennifer Garner) was an insanely competent spy with an endless supply of neon wigs and roundhouse kicks, and whether she was foiling plots for world domination or trying to repair her damaged relationship with her father, she held on to an absolute belief in doing the right thing.