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Spies in a Van

"You know what? I'm sick of being in the van. You guys are going to be in the van next time. I've been in the van for 15 years, Harry."
Gib, True Lies

So here's the plan: to accomplish our mission, we're going to need a subtrope of The Stakeout. Plotwise, it will go down the same way as a traditional stakeout, but to make things more interesting, we'll be adding a vehicle. A vehicle that looks like any other normal vehicle on the street. But on the inside, it'll be filled with all sorts of electronics and several spies monitoring cameras and bugs they've planted.

Most of the time, this trope will be Exactly What It Says on the Tin:

First, we'll need some spies. They can be highly skilled detectives or bumbling idiots. What we're looking for is the ability to further the plot or provide comedy relief as required by the writers. The spies will work for the organization. Most often, it's a slightly corrupt but well-intentioned AntiHeroic Government Agency of Fiction that uses this tactic, but the Big Bad will often have these too. Sometimes it's operated by a much smaller organization, such as a private detective or a pair of crooks planning The Caper.

Next, we'll need a van. The vehicle selected will need to provide sufficient space for the spies to do their job, have relatively few windows, and be reasonably maneuverable, high-speed, and, most importantly, nondescript. Of course, it doesn't have to be a van or even a traditional land vehicle for that matter. After all, surveillance equipment can also be placed in a tractor trailor, boat, aircraft, or spacecraft. It's just that vans tend to look more... ordinary. The van is often, if not usually, camouflaged with a fake business logo; in comedies this is often a Paper-Thin Disguise Played for Laughs.

Regardless of its exact form, enclosing the operation in a vehicle has several advantages. First, it allows The Stakeout to move, often following a specific individual, without having to pack up the equipment. The van can tail or pursue a person of interest, or be used to kidnap them. The van can serve as Mission Control as well. In a pinch, the van can be used as a getaway car, safehouse, or emergency headquarters should the Elaborate Underground Base be compromised.

Once in disguise, this trope will be completely indistinguishable from its sister trope Van in Black. Except for one thing: in Van in Black, you'll never know exactly what the vans are doing, if they're really spying on you or not, or even if they're really there or just a figment of your imagination. But not here. In this trope, you, the audience, represented by this man in the white shirt and blue pants, will have full visibility of the operation from within. Keep that in mind when adding examples and you should fit in just fine.

Welcome to the inside.

Examples:

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    Advertising 
  • One credit card commercial stars a woman lamenting how her father and his "associates" would find things that Fell Off the Back of a Truck, and as a result, she gets stalked when she's out on her own. Thanks to her new card, and that everything comes with a receipt, she likes to hold the invoice up in plain view of the not-so-inconspicuous van and shout at them, "You've got nothing!"

     anime and manga:  

  • In Gunsmith Cats, ATF agent Bill Collins uses one of these to spy on Rally. The girls aren't fooled.
  • In Pokémon Special, the Shadow Triad has one decked with spy equipment.

     Fan Fic  

  • Happens in one of the early chapters of The Return when the super-secret paranormal black-ops team take time out to bust a perfectly ordinary bank robbery. Leads to some mild Jurisdiction Friction.

     Film  

  • How the French agents patrol New Yor K City in the 1998 Godzilla.
  • The Hero's coworkers in True Lies operate one for the "Omega Sector". The film features the van as Mission Control and kidnapping vehicle as well.
  • Sneakers has a van like this. Whistler ends up having to drive it across a parking lot despite being blind.
  • A Van of Undercover Cops appears in several scenes in Lucky Number Slevin. They even (briefly) abduct the main character.
  • In Matilda, the title character notices a car is always parked on the street outside their house. The car turns out to belong to cops who are trying to arrest Matilda's father for selling cars with faulty car parts.
  • The NSA van in Enemy of the State. The problem with doing this is shown when Robbert is able to spot them and call the police on them, claiming they are drug dealers.
  • The Naked Gun 2 1/2 does this. And then the cops get stuck in the van for parking too close to a wall.
  • The expository opening scene of Smokin' Aces features FBI agents in a van.
  • Rubber deconstructs the van when one of the viewers of the Show Within a Show points out how stupid the trope is.
  • DEA agents are stationed in one in the opening of Delta Force 2: The Colombian Connection. Then the Big Bad's men show up and shoots the thing into kingdom come.
  • The heroes of the first Attack of the Killer Tomatoes! movie drive around in a car with "FIA Unmarked Car" stenciled on the side.
  • In The Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe Francois, the title character, is mistaken for a spy - a team of agents bug his apartment and listen in from a van made up to look like a florist's. They record a sexual tryst he's rather unwillingly having with his best friend's wife. Later, they're playing it back as the friend is just outside on a bicycle - he concludes his wife is having an affair with a florist.
  • In Good Neighbor Sam, a midcentury domestic comedy starring Jack Lemmon, a woman stands to inherit a fortune conditional on her being married, and circumstances have Sam (married to her friend) masquerading as her husband. Suspicious relatives hire a private eye to spy on them in a vacuum cleaner repair truck parked on the street for days - everyone involved is wise to him and struggle to keep up the ruse.

     Literature  

  • The Delta Force in Deception Point are introduced like this (albeit in a hidden tent rather than a van).
  • The short story "The Van on Atlantic Street" by Desmond Warzel is an example of this, though it's unclear throughout exactly who they're spying on, or, for that matter, who they're spying for.
  • Milgrim from William Gibson's Spook Country serves as a translator in an ordinary one of these. Late in Zero History he gets to ride in a cooler one for a different reason.

     Live Action TV  

  • Leverage does this sometimes—Hardison (The Hacker) is often in the van. He even named his van Lucille.
    • In the episode "Two Horse Job", Parker and Hardison are using a van to carry out surveillance on Sterling.
    • The FBI themselves have a fairly obvious van as well.
  • The Wire does this a lot, both by the cops and by Omar (a stick-up artist - he only uses a van in season one and briefly in season four, though). Featuring such antics as Detective Sydnor complaining that the van is full of Detective Carver's empties, and the fact that Carver is eating such a variety of junk food while on stakeout outside a mini-mart, Omar looking out the van window and watching for hints of where the stash-house is (and Bailey taking notes based on what Omar observed, on a sheet of notebook paper on which they were clearly playing hangman before), Omar and Renaldo watching a convenience store they suspect is a drug front, and getting distracted watching Detective Kima Greggs watching the same convenience store from her own vehicle, and so on.
  • The Dog washing van from Arrested Development.
  • Done occasionally in Season 1 of White Collar, and Once an Episode in Season 2.
  • Spoofed in Life On Mars. Sam Tyler convinces a dubious Gene Hunt to use a bug to gather information on the bad guys, saying "One day this stuff will bring down Richard Nixon." Gene is sitting in the van when he suddenly says, "Wouldn't they notice a great big van parked outside the White House?"
  • One sketch in That Mitchell and Webb Look features a spoof variation: two people, in a van, keeping an eye on the field agent and advising him. The only difference is that their advice is about what quips and double entendres to use. That and providing the same service for the villain.
  • On Dollhouse, the agents follow and monitor the Actives in surveillance vans, just to make sure everything goes well.
  • In Chuck, sitting in the van during a mission was considered drawing the short straw. Whoever had to do it often didn't stay there, especially if it was Chuck or Morgan.
  • On Parks and Recreation, Leslie and Tom use a van to spy on the community garden to see who has been planting marijuana in it. Leslie decides instead to spy on her friend Ann who lives next to the garden and is going on a date with Leslie's ex-boyfriend.
  • In Justified the Marshals use this several times when scoping out where fugitives may be hiding, with varying levels of complaining from those who get stuck on van duty.

     Video Games  

  • In The Simpsons: Hit & Run, Homer gets paranoid about these strange black vans around Springfield. While expecting them to be this trope under the control of Mr. Burns, they later turn out to be pizza delivery vans. (Different example from the one mentioned above.)
  • In Hitman Blood Money, one of these vans is used by FBI agents to control and monitor their witness protection efforts. Spiking doughnuts meant for the agents there with sedatives or poison is probably the best way to get an FBI agent suit in this level.
  • In the Sam & Max episode, Reality 2.0., because Max became president last episode and moved the Oval Office to the corner of Straight & Narrow, the Secret Service is staked outside in a truck marked "Secret Serv Ice Cream".

     Web Original  

  • When Battlecat and Minx (Battlecat's daughter) of the Global Guardians PBEM Universe weren't hanging around rooftops staking out a wanted criminal, they were usually parked in Battlecat's Cool Car staking out a wanted criminal. While their rooftop stakeouts always ended in discussions about Minx's current boyfriend, the car stake-outs would always end up being about Battlecat's still being in love with Minx's mother some five years after the divorce (and after his ex-wife remarried).

     Western Animation  

  • The page image is from The Simpsons episode, "The Trouble With Trillions". The 'Two Guys from Quantico Pizza' van comes into play when Homer is press-ganged into helping an investigation of Mr Burns.
    • Another episode has the Paper-Thin DisguiseFlowers By Irene—and this was moments after Marge pondered out loud how long it can take someone to deliver a pizza (the prior van was one for a pizza place), causing the first van to flee.
    • The Simpsons love this one. Another episode has an otherwise nondescript van, with "ORDINARY VAN" on the side.
  • In Family Guy, Peter uses such a van to spy on Lois.
  • Used in an episode of American Dad!. Stan and a fellow agent camp out in a van, spying on a house full of terrorists. Unfortunately, the terrorists notice the van parked right outside and take them both hostage.
  • 1973/74 Super Friends episode "The Balloon People". Dr. Noah Tall and Twisty use one called the "Snoop Wagon" to spy on the title characters. Bonus points for having an exterior radar dish and extendable telescope.


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