Cold War Spy Series 'The Americans' Taps Into Today's Concerns About Russia | KUOW News and Information

Cold War Spy Series 'The Americans' Taps Into Today's Concerns About Russia

Mar 7, 2017

Last week, when news surfaced about various meetings between the Russian ambassador and members of Donald Trump's campaign, Huffington Post editor Howard Fineman appeared on MSNBC and said, "If you think the Russian ambassador is just an ambassador, you haven't been watching The Americans."

Well, I have been watching — and it's been fascinating from the start. But now, with Cold War intrigue hotter than it's been in decades, many curious new viewers are likely to flock to this series.

At first, they may be quite surprised, because The Americans, more than anything else, is a family drama, in which the parents just happen to be Russian spies living in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, DC. The husband and wife, Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, were paired by mother Russia long ago to emigrate to the United States and have a couple of kids and run a small travel agency, while taking on serious and sometimes dangerous spy missions.

Their kids are now teens, and their daughter Paige is old enough to ask questions, and notice and challenge things. She's also embarked on a budding romance with the teen son of the next-door neighbor — who just happens to be an FBI agent investigating spies just like his seemingly innocent best-friend neighbors.

Elizabeth and Philip are played by Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys, who are wonderful. The couple adopts various identities and disguises to spy for their homeland — sometimes together, other times alone.

Based on the three episodes available for preview, the season features an overarching story about a possible U.S. plot to damage the Soviet wheat crops. But what really counts on The Americans, as always, are the dynamics within this quiet family suburb.

As the season opens, mom Elizabeth introduces the teenage Paige to the real family business. Will Paige mature quickly enough to join her parents on a spy mission? And if so, how will that go?

And the FBI agent has to learn, eventually, that the object of his investigation has been a trusted confidant the whole time — leading to the same sort of emotional climax as the one between Walter White and his brother-in-law Hank on Breaking Bad.

These underlying tensions, between neighbors, and between children and parents, are what makes The Americans so quietly intense — and so interesting.

It's also interesting to reflect how television's depictions of Cold War tensions have changed over the decades. In the '60s, our mistrust of the Soviets was embodied by Boris Badenov, a scheming spy, along with his partner Natasha Fatale, for the fictional foreign country of Pottsylvania on the cartoon series Rocky & Bullwinkle.

The American response to these foreign operatives, on TV, was the Mission: Impossible force, a U.S. spy operation so top-secret that every mission began with a warning that the government, if confronted, would deny its existence.

American TV viewers, in the 1960s, had no problem with that. But by the 1980s, the time frame in which The Americans is set, the concerns, and the paranoia, was heightened. ABC gave us 1983's The Day After, a frightening TV-movie about a Russian nuclear missile attack on the American heartland — specifically, Lawrence, Kansas.

ABC also gave us a 1987 miniseries called Amerika. It was set in the near future, and depicted life in the U.S. after the Soviets had succeeded in mounting a bloodless coup, with the President being a mere pawn for his Russian manipulators.

Quite fittingly, an episode of The Americans, a few seasons ago, was all about the reactions of the various characters on that show, who were watching the 1983 premiere of The Day After. Its politics, and its power and topicality, got their attention then — just as FX's The Americans deserves your attention now.

Copyright 2017 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Tonight on the FX cable network, the period drama series "The Americans" returns with its fifth season premiere. But even though it's set in the Reagan era of the 1980s, this Cold War spies series about Soviet sleeper agents posing as a typical suburban American family has unexpected new resonance because of very current allegations about Russian influence on American affairs. Our TV critic, David Bianculli, has these thoughts about the new season of "The Americans" and the long history of TV Cold War intrigue.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: Last week, when news surfaced about various meetings between the Russian ambassador and members of Donald Trump's campaign, Huffington Post editor Howard Fineman appeared on MSNBC and said, if you think the Russian ambassador is just an ambassador, you haven't been watching "The Americans."

Well, I have been watching, and it's been fascinating from the start. But now, with Cold War intrigue hotter than it's been in decades, many curious new viewers are likely to flock to this series. And at first, they may be quite surprised because "The Americans," more than anything else, is a family drama in which the parents just happen to be Russian spies living in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C.

The husband and wife, Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings, were paired by Mother Russia long ago to emigrate to the United States, have a couple of kids and run a small travel agency while taking on serious and sometimes dangerous spy missions. Their kids are now teens and their daughter, Paige, is old enough to ask questions and notice and challenge things. She's also embarked on a budding romance with the teen son of the next-door neighbor who just happens to be an FBI agent investigating spies just like his seemingly innocent best friend neighbors.

Elizabeth and Phillip are played by Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys, who are wonderful. The couple adopts various identities and disguises to spy for their homeland, sometimes together, other times alone. And as season five opens, it's time for the mom to introduce her daughter, played by Holly Taylor, to the real family business. She takes her out to the family garage, promising to show her something, but when they get there, starts roughly shoving her around instead.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE AMERICANS")

HOLLY TAYLOR: (As Paige Jennings) Hey. Mom.

KERI RUSSELL: (As Elizabeth Jennings) Come on.

TAYLOR: (As Paige Jennings) Mom, stop. What the hell?

RUSSELL: (As Elizabeth Jennings) First thing, you can't be afraid to be hit and you can't be afraid to hit ever. You don't want to get hurt. You have to be willing to do anything to protect yourself. Put your hand up. Make a fist - thumb here always. That's good.

BIANCULLI: This season, based on the three episodes available for preview, there's an overarching story about a possible U.S. plot to damage the Soviet wheat crops. But what really counts on "The Americans," as always, are the dynamics within this quiet family suburb. Will Paige mature quickly enough to join her parents on a spy mission? And if so, how will that go? And the FBI agent has to learn eventually that the object of his investigation has been a trusted confidant the whole time, leading to the same sort of emotional climax as the one between Walter White and his brother-in-law Hank on "Breaking Bad."

These underlying tensions between neighbors and between children and parents are what makes "The Americans" so quietly intense and so interesting. It's also interesting to reflect how television's depictions of Cold War tensions have changed over the decades. In the '60s, our mistrust of the Soviets was embodied by Boris Badenov, a scheming spy along with his partner Natasha Fatale for the fictional foreign country of Pottsylvania on the cartoon series "Rocky And Bullwinkle."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE ROCKY AND BULLWINKLE SHOW")

PAUL FREES: (As Boris Badenov) Hello, Fearless Leader. It's Boris.

LEON ASKIN: (As Fearless Leader) Boris who?

FREES: (As Boris Badenov) Boris Badenov.

ASKIN: (As Fearless Leader) Must be some mistake. We got a new spy named Badenov.

FREES: (As Boris Badenov) You do, too. It's me.

ASKIN: (As Fearless Leader) We used to have nebbish named Badenov, but he was executed yesterday.

FREES: (As Boris Badenov) What?

ASKIN: (As Fearless Leader) It says so in paper.

FREES: (As Boris Badenov) But I'm Badenov.

ASKIN: (As Fearless Leader) Oh, my mistake. I pick up tomorrow's paper (laughter). Oh, well, what's one day?

FREES: (As Boris Badenov) Hello? Hello? I've been cut off.

JUNE FORAY: (As Natasha Fatale) You're not kidding, darling.

FREES: (As Boris Badenov) How could they do this to me after 20 years of lying, cheating, double crossing and backbiting? They don't like me anymore.

BIANCULLI: The American response to these foreign operatives on TV was the Mission Impossible Force, a U.S. spy operation so top secret that every mission began with a warning that the government, if confronted, would deny its existence.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE")

BOB JOHNSON: (As Person on Tape) As always, should you or any member of your IM Force be caught or killed, the secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions. This tape will self-destruct in five seconds. Good luck, Jim.

(SOUNDBITE OF LALO SCHIFRIN'S "THEME FROM MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE")

BIANCULLI: American TV viewers in the 1960s had no problem with that. But by the 1980s, the timeframe in which "The Americans" is set, the concerns and the paranoia was heightened. ABC gave us 1983's "The Day After," a frightening TV movie about a Russian nuclear missile attack on the American heartland, specifically Lawrence, Kan. ABC also gave us a 1987 mini-series called "Amerika" spelled with a K. It was set in the near future and depicted life in the U.S. after the Soviets had succeeded in mounting a bloodless coup with the president being a mere pawn for his Russian manipulators.

Quite fittingly, an episode of "The Americans" a few seasons ago was all about the reactions of the various characters on that show who were watching the 1983 premiere of "The Day After." Its politics and its power and topicality got their attention then, just as FX's "The Americans" deserves your attention now.

GROSS: David Bianculli teaches TV and film history at Rowan University and is the author of "The Platinum Age Of Television: From I Love Lucy To The Walking Dead, How TV Became Terrific."

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Mohsin Hamid, who has written a timely novel about knowing when it's time to flee your country and what happens when you do become and immigrant in another country that's hostile to immigrants. Hamid lives in Lahore, Pakistan, but spent part of his childhood in California, where his father was studying. As a young man, Hamid lived in New York and London. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, John Sheehan, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie and Thea Chaloner. I'm Terry Gross.

I want to close with a thank you to Robert Osborne, who was a host on the Turner Classic Movies network for 23 years. He died yesterday at the age of 84. I know I'm one of many people who appreciated his informative and sometimes personal stories about the movies he introducted. And I loved how much he seemed to love movies and the people who make them.

He had a memorabilia collection that included a gift from Bette Davis, the acting award's statuette that her character received in the film "All About Eve." That film is included in his list of 52 must-see movies in his book "The Essentials." So we'll close with music from "All About Eve." Thank you, Robert Osborne, for presenting so many great films and for telling us the stories behind them.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALFRED NEWMAN'S "ALL ABOUT EVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.