The Corner

The Americans and the Slipperiness of Popular Culture

As today is May Day, a time when lots of people put the best spin possible on some of the most murderous movements in human history, I figured I’d chime in on the new FX show The Americans, which I finally caught up with while travelling.

Dan Foster did a nice piece on the series not too long ago. He has a better summary of the show’s premise, but the short of it is this: Set in the first years of the Reagan administration, it follows two deep-cover Soviet agents living in America as Americans who are struggling to create a family life while seducing, shagging, blackmailing and, often, murdering American officials and other patsies for Mother Russia and the Communist Party.

I agree with much Dan has to say. It is a pretty good show and fun to watch. The claim that we’re going to root for the KGB is overwrought and exaggerated. We might feel invested in the main characters; we might even keep our fingers crossed that their “marriage” works out. But I doubt very much all that many viewers are hoping that the KGB wins and defeats America or anything like that (though I’m sure some such idiots exist). One reason we don’t do this, as Dan suggests, is that we know how the story ultimately ends. I think this makes the characters slightly more endearing; we know they are in a lost cause.

What I find interesting about the show is how slippery popular culture can be (I made a similar point in this column with a bad headline). I gather the show’s creators think they are being subversive or at the very least very clever by getting viewers to root for the “bad guys.” Those quotation marks are essentially Hollywood’s, not my own. For the fact is, the Jennings (the “married” KGB couple) are bad guys. They’re murderers, for starters.

Now, I know in these days of situational ethics — where all a protagonist needs to do to become a hero is live by some code, any code — some fans of the show will bristle at the suggestion that the Jennings are bad guys. I think that’s morally stunted nonsense — the fact you like a character doesn’t mean that character has to be good. If a real-life Tony Soprano existed, I wouldn’t hesitate to say that he deserved the death penalty or at least life in prison. That I can get attached to the fictional Tony doesn’t change the moral calculus, for me at least, at all. The same goes for the Jennings.

But I think there are reasonable arguments to be had about all that. Getting back to the slipperiness of popular culture, I have to wonder if the producers realize how much the show undercuts the Left, at least the Hollywood Left. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the party line among many liberals was that the Cold War was, at its core, silly — dangerous, but silly. The danger came from cowboys like Ronald Reagan who foolishly thought the Soviets were a real threat. Liberals held that no one should have an “inordinate fear of Communism,” as Jimmy Carter put it. The Soviets wanted peaceful coexistence. After all, as famed Sovietologist, Sting, would later argue, the Russians love their children too.

And that may be true. But the KGB in The Americans are for the most part fully committed to the Cause. Kerri Russell’s Elizabeth couldn’t be more committed to international struggle of the proletariat. Avoiding spoilers as much as possible, one character, an African-American Communist spy recruited from the civil-rights movement, should have the Left furious. If you take the character seriously (which I don’t necessarily recommend) he demonstrates not only the murderous commitments of the hard Communist Left, but he basically vindicates J. Edgar Hoover’s most extreme rhetoric about the civil-rights movement!

Sure, there are some themes anti-anti-Communists can draw support from. The Russians are just responding to “provocations” from the West. Russian paranoia is more to blame than Soviet ideology. Etc. Etc. But the key “provocation” of the first season is Reagan’s “Star Wars” initiative, which the Left has always ridiculed as absurd. The Soviets didn’t think it was absurd; it helped drive the reforms that led to the Empire’s demise. As for Russian paranoia, so what? That was always part of the anti-Communist analysis of the Soviet Union.

I’m not saying that the show is pure anti-Communist agitprop. All I’m saying is that if you set out to make a good TV show, odds are any hopes of crafting a successful political polemic will slip through your fingers.

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