Just because you missed the Cold War doesn't mean you can't appreciate 'The Americans' and root for the bad guys

acarpenter@islandpacket.comFebruary 13, 2013 

For an entire generation, the Soviet Union loomed as specter over all international relations -- at lightest, a bogeyman for suburbanites to speculate about; at heaviest, the instrument of a nuclear apocalypse.

For me? Eh, the Soviets have nyet ever really bothered me.

I was born in 1987; I missed the Cold War. For most of my life, "Communist" was only what I'd call my parents when I didn't want to do the dishes, red only the color of the bad guys from the Miracle on Ice and the USSR nothing but the big country on old globes that teachers always had to explain doesn't exist anymore. When I see a hammer and sickle, I think more of falling Tetris blocks than falling atom bombs.

Recently, I've taken to watching FX's "The Americans," a drama that airs Wednesdays about KGB sleeper agents living in Reagan-era Washington, D.C.

(Yes, I know: In Soviet Russia, show watches you.)

The program, thus far, has been quite good. Granted, I'm a sucker for just about any show related to spies, especially those featuring attractive female leads, but "The Americans" has a twist: Not only does it push you to root for "the bad guys" -- an uncommon but not wholly original concept -- but it also urges you to root for bad guys you know are historically destined to fail.

I imagine it's something like latter-day ancient Greeks watching a series starring the Trojans, assuming the Greeks had cable television and that the Trojans had once put nuclear missiles on Cuba.

It's a fascinating premise, really: In a patriotic sense, there's nothing in me that should want the two Soviet spies to succeed in their missions, and in an emotional sense, I should be protecting myself from mutually assured heartbreak.

But this is where my lack of formal Cold War training comes into play: I've never had enough of a problem with the Russians for this to be an issue. (If in 20 years, there were a fictional television series about the al-Qaida sleeper agents who trained in the U.S. as pilots and would go on to fly airplanes into the World Trade Center, I don't think I'd cheer when they planted a bug in the office of the defense secretary.) Instead, "The Americans" turns into something of a history lesson, albeit one that comes from a Cyrillic textbook.

While I clearly don't take the missions undertaken on the show to be nonfiction, I think "Americans" does an excellent job of capturing the atmosphere of what it must have been like to be involved in American-Soviet affairs back then. With every episode, I more understand the palpable tension of the time; why we were the capitalist pigs, they the Commie b(anana bread maker)s. Small nuggets pop up here and there that have earned passing mention in history class, but "The Americans" puts them into context in a way that resonates.

And, over and over again, I find myself interpreting those nuggets on what they mean to the side I'm rooting for. (Hint: It's not ours.)

Ultimately, the glimpse into that era is fascinating, even though I know Mr. Gorbachev will eventually tear down that wall.

I'm happy to tune in until he does.

In Soviet Russia, Andrei emails you. Reach him at acarpenter@islandpacket.com.

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