RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
A lot of popular TV shows feature unlikely heroes, these days. "Dexter" is a serial killer. They're murdering bikers in "Sons of Anarchy," and a meth cook in "Breaking Bad." Now, a series coming to FX digs into the Cold War past, with a married couple as its antiheroes. Here's TV critic Eric Deggans.
ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Back in the days when schools still had atomic bombing drills and the best suburban homes included a bomb shelter, the most reliable villain in TV and movies was the secret Russian agent.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE")
ANGELA LANSBURY: (as Mrs. Iselin) Chunjin will give you a two-piece Soviet army sniper's rifle that fits nicely into a special bag. It's been decided that you will be dressed as a priest, to help you get away in the pandemonium afterwards.
DEGGANS: From "The Manchurian Candidate" to "The Falcon and the Snowman," films about Americans covertly working for Communist Russia have reflected our fears of secret weakness, as a nation. So what does it mean when a TV network presents a series where the secret Russian spies are the heroes?
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE AMERICANS")
KERRI RUSSELL: (as Elizabeth Jennings) I was 17 when I joined the KGB. Never had a boyfriend - they put me with you. We didn't know each other. When we got here, I was - I was 22 years old; living in a strange house in a strange country, with a strange man.
DEGGANS: "Felicity" star Keri Russell is Elizabeth Jennings in FX's "The Americans." It's a new series about two Russian spies who have lived secretly as an American couple, for more than a decade. They have children, co-workers and neighbors who have no idea who they really are, slipping out into the night to recapture defectors or collect intelligence.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW "THE AMERICANS)
MAXIMILIANO HERNANDEZ: (As FBI Agent Chris Amador) Super secret spies living next door. They look like us. They speak better English than we do. They're not allowed to say a single word in Russian once they get here.
DEGGANS: Jennings may seem American as apple pie on the surface. But she is also a fierce loyalist to Mother Russia, working for the KGB in America just as Ronald Reagan's 1980 election sets the Soviet Union on edge.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING IN TV SHOW, "THE AMERICANS")
PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: The greatest threat the United States now faces is the Soviet Union.
DEGGANS: In those days, an American war with the Soviet Union was an apocalyptic nightmare, which sometimes seemed just around the corner. President Carter declared the U.S. would use force to keep the Soviets from dominating the Persian Gulf, and President Reagan built up the U.S. military to match their massive force. It seemed any incident could turn this Cold War hot.
So it may seem astounding now that a U.S. TV network has tried so hard to make heroes out of characters that have been villains in American life, and entertainment, for at least half a century. In FX's "The Americans," we watch the double agents agonize over a blackmail plot. And we rarely hear about the anti-American political beliefs, which might lead them to live a lie for more than 10 years. It all sounds a bit preposterous - until you consider that it kind of happened in real life, back in 2010.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED BROADCASTER: But a case unfolding on the East Coast sounds like a chapter out of the Cold War. Ten Russian intelligence officers have been arrested, allegedly for spying on the U.S.
DEGGANS: People mostly laughed off this story. It's a measure of how far we've come from our Cold War fears. After all, al-Qaida has drawn serious blood in America, killing nearly 3,000 people on 9/11. Which means this might be the perfect time to sympathize with the antihero Soviet spies of FX's "The Americans." In the end, they were bogeymen whose dangers lurked mostly in our heads.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MONTAGNE: Eric Deggans - he reviews media for the Tampa Bay Times.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.