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 police 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 (telecoms, electrical contractors or plumbers); 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.
- Such vans can also be used by protagonists, generally in police/covert military shows. Section 9 in Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, for example, regularly uses one for undercover surveillance.
- In Gunsmith Cats, ATF agent Bill Collins uses one of these to spy on Rally. The girls aren't fooled.
- In Pokémon Adventures, the Shadow Triad has one decked with spy equipment.
- The Punisher's reconnaissance vehicle-slash-mobile armory is his Battlevan (originally disguised as things like TV repair).
- The heroes of the first Attack of the Killer Tomatoes! movie drive around in a car with "FIA Unmarked Car" stenciled on the side.
- Best Seller (1987) opens with a long sequence of the robbers driving through the streets of Los Angeles in a black van. However they're not trying to be inconspicuous at all, as the van is fitted with loudspeakers broadcasting political slogans.
- 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 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 Fourth Protocol. The MI-5 Watchers have one outside the flat of a British politician who is stealing NATO secrets. They listen to a wiretap of the politician cancelling a date with his mistress, then watch him walking to the subway where he dodges various people in case they are following him...all of whom are shown sitting in the van after he reaches his rendezvous with The Handler.
- How the French agents patrol New York City in the 1998 Godzilla.
- 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.
- The van used by the bank robbers in Inside Man.
- The 'submarine' is a police surveillance van in the French movie L.627. At the start of the movie the protagonist gets into a conflict with his superior who keeps requisitioning it to drive home each night, even though it's being used for a stakeout.
- The Zap 'Em Pest Control van in Men in Black ironically serves as transportation for a big bad bug. Somewhat Lampshaded because half of his spaceship stuck out of the back and top.
- The Naked Gun 2 1/2 does this. And then the cops get stuck in the van for parking too close to a wall.
- Played for laughs in Old School, when the protagonists use one of these to kidnap their fraternity pledges, complete with Metallica soundtrack.
- Rubber deconstructs the van when one of the viewers of the Show Within a Show points out how stupid the trope is.
- In The Siege, it's the FBI protagonists who get themselves bugged by military intelligence officers hiding in a van (New York's placed under martial law at that time). The FBI promptly turns tables and arrests the officers for obstructing a federal investigation.
- The expository opening scene of Smokin' Aces features FBI agents in a van.
- Sneakers has a van like this. Whistler ends up having to drive it across a parking lot despite being blind.
- The two CIA agents from The Spirit of '76 are first seen in a Custom Industrial Appliances van.
- 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. The movie ends with Gib griping how he's stuck in the van while his partner does all the exciting stuff.
Gib: You know what? I'm sick of being in the van. You guys gotta be in the van next time. I've been in the van for fifteen goddamn years, Harry.
- 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.
- A Walk Among the Tombstones. Private eye Matthew Scudder is hired by a heroin trafficker to find the serial killers who dragged his wife into a white van and murdered her. At one point Scudder is being followed by a white van with dirty license plates, marked with the phone number of a plumbing business that isn't listed in the phone book. He takes down a man following him, only to be arrested by his colleagues — DEA agents who are using the van to watch his client, and want to know what Scudder is doing associating with him.
- The Bad Place begins with the Dakotas staking out the Decodyne Corporation, waiting for a crooked night watchman to steal the company's latest program for a competitor. Julie is well behind the building in a car to provide backup for her husband—Bobby is in a van filled with surveillance equipment doing the actual watching and recording of the crime. Unfortunately, the thief spotted Bobby despite the Dakotas using multiple vans and trucks for the stake-out and hired goons to try and kill him.
- The Delta Force in Deception Point are introduced like this (albeit in a hidden tent rather than a van).
- 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.
- 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.
- Alias: Many missions begin with the field agent (usually Sydney) finalizing her disguise in a van (or appropriate local equivalent) while going over the plan with Mission Control. Then she hops out of the back of the van and heads around the corner to the office/bunker/party while her backup waits inside.
- The Dog washing van from Arrested Development.
- The Boys (2019). In "Get Some", Billy Butcher hires a cheap Pack-N-Go truck for their surveillance, commenting that a Van in Black with flowers on the side would be far more conspicuous. This becomes a Brick Joke in the season final when Butcher sees a black florists van parked outside the hotel they're staying at, and drives past without stopping because he realises the rest of the Boys have been captured.
- In Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Trio set up a stake-out van to monitor Buffy's activities and coordinate their attacks. There is a brief dispute over whether the very conspicuous Death Star decal added by Andrew really is appropriate on a vehicle that's supposed to be low-key.
- 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 Dollhouse, the agents follow and monitor the Actives in surveillance vans, just to make sure everything goes well.
- An episode of Father Ted involves Father Ted and Father Dougal, trying to catch out a philandering local milkman who's been knocking up all the women on his route, engaging in this with a truly ridiculous amount of surveillance equipment for two Catholic priests (although technically it's in Ted's car and not a van).
- One of these shows up on Hill Street Blues of all shows, tailing Hill and Renko's cruiser. (Does that count as an inversion?) When Renko finally confronts the occupants they turn out to be a local TV news crew who've been doing a report on police activity, and are less than impressed with Andy's doughnut habit.
- In Honey West, Honey and her partner Sam Bolt drive around in a surveillance van with "H. W. Bolt, TV Repairing" written on the side.
- Iron Fist (2017) has a variation in "The Mistress Of All Agonies". When Davos wants to keep surveillance on the Rand Corporation building, he knocks out the guy operating a taco van parked across the road and takes his place.
- A sketch on Is It Bill Bailey? involves two cops surveilling a couple of criminals meeting for a drugs buy using this method and a hidden wire. Unfortunately for the cops, the two criminals get distracted by a burgeoning friendship based on their mutual ridiculous interests, and they get so caught up in spending hours discussing fatuous nonsense that eventually the cops have to knock on their door and beg them to shut up.
- 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.
- The Cooper family in K.C. Undercover have one (being a family of spies after all). During missions one member (usually Ernie) stays inside to act as Mission Control.
- 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.
- 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?"
- The Bug Van from Miami Vice, complete with an enormous model roach on top for extra inconspicuousness.
- NCIS does this a lot. Usually with McGee in the van.
- 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.
- After a few episodes of Scorpion, the team acquires a van from their employers at Homeland Security, ostensibly so they don't have to keep bumming rides from Paige and Cabe on the way to missions. In practice, the van, much like the team itself, often takes on a far more active role than it was meant to — even having its engine blown up once. It includes wireless connectivity and room for Happy's tool chest.
- Supernatural. Sam and Dean have to use this trope in Season 7, because every Leviathan knows their face on sight, so just sitting in a car or Impersonating an Officer (their usual tactics) to gather information could get them killed.
- 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.
- Done occasionally in Season 1 of White Collar, and Once an Episode in Season 2.
- 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 Sydnor complaining that the van is full of 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 Kima watching the same convenience store from her own vehicle, and so on.
- And though no one's actually in it, season 2 features a subplot where the Stevedores Union steals Major Valchek's valuable surveillance van from under his nose as part of their series of petty revenges on each other and begin shipping it around the world, sending Valchek taunting photos of it from each new location, which continues even after Sobotka is killed.
- 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.
- Poptropica's Virus Hunter Island has the Poptropican Disease Control (a Poptropican version of the CDC) driving around the island in a van trying to find and spy on Patient Zero. Their cover is that they're a pizza delivery company, covering up the agency's name on their van with the Paper-Thin Disguise, Pizza Delivery Company.
- 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".
- In Star Traders Frontiers , you can Spy in the orbit of any Faction holding, effectively making it Spies in a Starship.
- 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.
- Berry Bees: The Berry Bees have a covert surveillance vehicle disguised as a white van with a dog painted on the side.
- DuckTales (1987): The Beagle Boys use the "Spies in A Van" technique in "The Bride Wore Stripes" and "My Mother the Psychic".
- Mr. Crocker in The Fairly OddParents used a fairy-tracking van disguised as an ice cream truck at least once. This proved horribly ineffective since he was immediately mobbed by kids. To drive them away, he converted the van into a spinach truck... and was immediately mobbed by sailors instead.
- Family Guy: In "Stuck Together, Torn Apart", Peter and his friends spy on Lois with a high-tech police van.
- The Simpsons S3E4 "Bart the Murderer" has Marge comment about it taking two weeks to deliver a pizza, which is overheard and causes the van to flee. A minute later, another causal van arrives, Flowers By Irene.
- In the Superfriends 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.