Rus­sian TV spies were sim­ple vil­lains be­fore ‘The Amer­i­cans’ and ‘Home­land’

The Republican Herald - This Weekend - - NEWS - BY MICHAEL S. ROSENWALD THE WASH­ING­TON POST

In 1955, the TV show “I Led 3 Lives,” about an un­der­cover FBI op­er­a­tive in­fil­trat­ing the com­mu­nist party in sub­ur­bia, wound down its sec­ond sea­son with an episode ti­tled “Child Com­mie.”

The plot of the episode: A 12-year-old girl — the com­mie child — spends the night with the FBI op­er­a­tive’s daugh­ter. “Never un­der­es­ti­mate a com­mie,” the op­er­a­tive is warned, “even a baby one.” In­deed.

The com­mie child im­me­di­ately goes to work on the whole­some sub­ur­ban girl, telling her “the truth” about Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton - that, like so many other pow­er­ful Amer­i­cans, he hurt poor peo­ple to en­rich them­selves.

As a plot de­vice, this was pretty stan­dard fare in the 1950s as the Cold War en­tered a par­tic­u­larly chilly pe­riod. Tele­vi­sion shows, in black and white, the painted Amer­i­cans vs. the Rus­sians in very black and white terms.

The Rus­sians: evil, con­niv­ing, one-di­men­sional.

The Amer­i­cans: As whole­some as ap­ple pie.

Now, decades af­ter the Cold War’s end, the Rus­sians are back as arch­en­e­mies on the world stage and the sound stage. Two of tele­vi­sion’s most pop­u­lar and crit­i­cally ac­claimed shows —“Home­land” and “The Amer­i­cans” — have Rus­sians as an­tag­o­nists, dis­rupt­ing democ­racy on screen in par­al­lel with real events.

But this time, the Rus­sians are dif­fer­ent.

In the case of “The Amer­i­cans,” about Rus­sian spies em­bed­ded in sub­ur­bia as travel agents who some­times kill peo­ple in very cre­ative ways, the en­emy is de­picted in a more three-di­men­sional, al­most sym­pa­thetic way. View­ers are tempted to root for the com­mies. On “Home­land,” which this sea­son mir­rored real Rus­sian med­dling and hack­ing with an at­tack on the pres­i­dency, the en­emy de­vel­ops as ruth­less yet prin­ci­pled and ag­grieved.

“There is a more com­plex and nu­anced view of the Rus­sians — or at least these Rus­sian char­ac­ters,” said re­tired Gen. Michael Hay­den, a for­mer NSA and CIA direc­tor who con­sults with “Home­land” writ­ers. “Be­fore, there was a the­o­ret­i­cal cer­tainty — Marx­ism bad, to­tal­i­tar­i­an­ism bad. The Rus­sians didn’t need much ex­plain­ing.”

The new, nu­anced por­trayal is driven by two forces shap­ing mod­ern life.

For one thing, Rus­sia is not an ex­is­ten­tial threat to hu­man­ity.

“Rus­sia has been a Class-A ir­ri­tant for four or five years now,” Hay­den said. “But it’s at the level of ir­ri­ta­tion and dis­rup­tion, not apoc­a­lyp­tic level.”

The other force, say cul­tural crit­ics, is the trans­for­ma­tion of tele­vi­sion from episodic to nov­el­is­tic.

Back in the 1950s and ’60s, tele­vi­sion shows didn’t have the nar­ra­tive arc they do to­day. Each episode had the same char­ac­ters, but the story lines didn’t un­fold over time. It was essen­tially just the same story over and over again, in slightly dif­fer­ent forms. (Other episode ti­tles from “I Led 3 Lives” in­clude “Com­mie Dies,” “Con­fused Com­rades,” and “Com­mu­nist Cop.”)

“They are vil­lains in a clas­sic sense, but they’re not char­ac­ters who we are en­cour­aged to un­der­stand or iden­tify with or em­pathize with,” said Michael Kack­man, a Univer­sity of Notre Dame pro­fes­sor of tele­vi­sion his­tory who stud­ies Cold War cul­ture. “Whether it’s ‘Mad Men’ or ‘Break­ing Bad,’ these kinds of shows build these large, com­pli­cated worlds and then re­ally deeply mine the emo­tional strug­gles of mul­ti­ple char­ac­ters. And you can em­pathize with them.”

“The Amer­i­cans,” by the show cre­ators’ own ad­mis­sion, lucked into the Rus­sia mo­ment. The show was orig­i­nally con­ceived as a nos­tal­gic look at the lives of real-life Rus­sian spies who lived in the United States for decades as Amer­i­cans. But the show, now in the mid­dle of its fi­nal sea­son, has taken on new cul­tural mean­ing amid in­ves­ti­ga­tions into Rus­sian med­dling in the re­cent pres­i­den­tial cam­paign.

“We think the show is not about want­ing peo­ple to pick sides and choose the Rus­sians over the Amer­i­cans,” show co-cre­ator Joe Weis­berg told the Ob­server re­cently. “We’re ask­ing peo­ple to look at what it’s like to be a sol­dier be­hind en­emy lines.”

“Home­land” is a dif­fer­ent story.

The show pre­miered in 2011 and for sev­eral years the story lines held up a mir­ror to the ter­ror­ist threat in the post9/11 world. Plots are in­formed by a tight re­la­tion­ship be­tween the show’s writ­ers and the in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity. Be­fore ev­ery sea­son, stars Claire Danes and Mandy Patinkin travel to Wash­ing­ton with the pro­duc­ing team for what they call “Spy Camp” — a se­ries of meet­ings with in­tel op­er­a­tives who brief them on geopo­lit­i­cal threats.

“We are fic­tion­ally till­ing in the same soil as the world is liv­ing,” said show co-cre­ator Howard Gor­don.

Dur­ing the past sea­son, the story cen­tered on Rus­sian med­dling into the pres­i­dency, though amped up for dra­matic ef­fect. (A gen­eral is killed. The 25th Amend­ment is in­voked. And so on.)

But the show also deftly por­trayed the old Rus­sia vs. the dis­rup­tive and needling new Rus­sia, whose op­er­a­tives en­gage in so­phis­ti­cated hack­ing and are driven by decade-old griev­ances against the West. They just want their coun­try back.

In an in­ter­view, Mandy Patinkin, who plays in­tel mas­ter­mind Saul Beren­son, said he pushed the writ­ers to make show this sea­son not just a fun­house mir­ror of re­al­ity, but to ac­com­plish, he said, what re­al­ity ap­par­ently can­not.

“The mir­ror needs a moral, a les­son that of­fers some­thing in a po­etic, artis­tic sense,” he said. “Don’t tell me a story that doesn’t have a moral.”


Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell por­tray Rus­sian spies on the hit FX show, “The Amer­i­cans.”

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