The FX television network has a series called “The Americans,” which follows a pair of deep-cover Soviet spies masquerading as a pleasant middle-class couple in 1980s Washington. Before the series began, some controversy was stirred when its creator, Joel Weisberg, declared these Russian agents would be “sympathetic characters.” He added, “I’d go so far as to say they’re the heroes.”
This understandably created apprehension that the show would, as a matter of editorial policy, take the side of the murderous Soviet Union over Ronald Reagan’s America. At the time, I thought what Weisberg was trying to say is that the spy couple would be the protagonists, not “heroic” in the moral sense of the word. There has been a wave of popular, well-crafted TV shows in which the protagonists are very bad people, ranging from “The Sopranos” (generally viewed as the pioneer anti-hero show) to “Breaking Bad.” It is a matter of dramatic necessity for any story, particularly a long-form TV show that stretches over dozens of hours, to sympathize with its protagonists, even if they’re monsters. That’s the attraction of the anti-hero genre for adventurous writers. They relish the challenge of maintaining literary sympathy without conferring moral approval, or becoming “untrue” to the characters by melting their icy cores too much. The anti-hero saga inherently challenges (or, to critics of the genre, titillates) the audience by seducing them into feeling some measure of sympathy for people they would regard as despicable criminals in real life. Even NBC’s superb “Hannibal” does this, to the point where it seems shocking when the show reminds viewers of exactly who this charismatic, well-dressed gourmet chef is, and what he’s cooking in that million-dollar kitchen of his.
As “The Americans,” which is now well into its second season, played out, I thought this idea of protagonists versus “heroes” was largely vindicated. Our main characters, Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings, are not nice people, and the show doesn’t whitewash the hideous regime they work for, beyond striving to honestly convey how the couple feels about both their distant masters, and the adopted country they spy upon. In fact, there’s a rather sizable rift between them on these matters, because Phillip has come to admire much about America, feel guilt over the terrible deeds he’s expected to perform – these two murder a lot of innocent people – and wonder if he might be playing for the wrong team. The series actually began with Phillip contemplating defection, but Elizabeth – the hard-core Communist ideologue of the pair – talked him out of it. As the series goes on, even Elizabeth appears to be choking on the amount of blood she’s expected to spill. Looming over both is the fact that they have two children, born and raised in the U. S. of A., who think their parents run a travel agency. This puts a ticking clock on their nefarious deeds, especially as their daughter has begun noticing that Mom and Dad do a lot of fishy stuff in the wee hours of the night.
So as far as treating these two as “heroes,” the show is pretty good about conveying the way they view themselves, but it’s almost agnostic about the great game they’re playing. Those who dislike “The Americans” might castigate it for refusing to actively root for the objective good guys in the story – if you think 1980s America was not morally superior to the Soviet Union, you shouldn’t be allowed to cross the street without supervision – but that would betray the story the show wants to tell. It’s all about the relationships of trust and betrayal between people working through the heavy fog of espionage. They can barely see each other clearly, never mind the big picture. Of course none of them knew how close they were to the fall of the Soviet empire, so none of the players in this game has any reason to think it’s going to end soon.
I would, however, note one early critique of “The Americans” I found resonant: no one would dream of making a show like this about Nazi agents living in the United States, back in the Thirties or Forties. You also won’t see any puff pieces about trendy Washington power couples with collectible Nazi posters hanging on their walls. Western culture, to its great cost, has avoided rendering the same judgment of communism that it rendered of fascism.
“The Americans” does a better job than most historical fiction of keeping modern judgments out of its scripts, striving to accurately depict how each character would have seen the world at the time – although it couldn’t help doing a bit of nudging and winking when Phillip was tasked with stealing information related to ARPANET, frowning in irritation and sighing in disbelief as a computer expert assured him it would change the world someday. Residents of 2014 were invited to chuckle as he teetered on the verge of dismissing the whole thing as science fiction. On the other hand, when Elizabeth watches a Ronald Reagan speech about national defense on TV and boils over with rage, it’s an entirely believable reaction from a committed KGB agent, particularly one who happens to be wrestling with a good deal of doubt and frustration at that moment. (Watching her KGB partner/husband air-guitar American pop songs after rolling up in a brand-new Chevy Camaro must have annoyed the hell out of her.) Because she’s one of the series protagonists, there’s always the concern that the writers expect us to agree with her, but I really don’t get that vibe from this show.
Evidently some liberal fans of the show do get that vibe, because as Brent Bozell and Tim Graham note over at Townhall, left-wing critics are freaking out over the decision to hire Oliver North as a consultant for the Contra storyline:
The New York Times ran a nasty article headlined “Oliver North, Now in the Service of TV’s K.G.B.” Get a load of how TV reporter Dave Itzkoff described liberals who are annoyed with North’s support for anti-communist freedom fighters in Nicaragua during the ’80s: “Close observers of contemporary American history say they are irritated by what they see as Mr. North’s continued attempts to aggrandize and whitewash his role in it.”
But what does Iran-Contra have to do with this FX storyline? And who are those nameless “close observers” anyway?
The “close observers,” who must not be called “liberals,” include Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic, who said North’s involvement in “The Americans” was “basically a bad joke.” He complained, “Everything that happens in history in this country eventually winds up as entertainment … you become notorious, and your notoriety makes you famous, and fame is the American version of glory.”
Wieseltier concluded: “Given his insistence upon his purity of heart and soul, there’s something a little tacky about his exploiting it.”
The heavy stink of hypocrisy hangs over these comments, since as Bozell and Graham note, none of these critics seemed to have any problem with liberal darlings like Valerie Plame and Joe Wilson cashing in on their fame/notoriety. But Wieseltier’s disdain for North also overlooks some perfectly understandable motivations beyond “tacky” exploitation. “The Americans” was going to do this Iran-Contra storyline with, or without him. Why wouldn’t he be interested in contributing to the script and getting the story right? What more knowledgeable consultant could the producers of “The Americans” have turned to?
The assumption here is that people like Oliver North are supposed to passively sit back and stay quiet while the Left writes history, particularly the sort of history delivered by pop-culture entertainment. It’s hardly unique to 2014 America to find history infusing popular culture – that’s been happening since the dawn of human civilization, and I’ll wager it didn’t take long for notoriety to become valuable currency for storytellers. It’s absurd (and unpleasantly revealing of the leftist world-view) to while about Oliver North as supposedly too “notorious” to contribute to a show about killer KGB agents whose methods routinely include hostage-taking, seduction, blackmail, and torture. It would have been weird for the show to avoid Iran-Contra completely, given its premise. As far as “whitewashing” goes, the Iran-Contra plotline was still developing as of the most recent episode, but I haven’t seen any whitewashing yet. If anything, the show has been working overtime to convey how angry the Contra strategy makes the Soviet characters and their allies.
As for the critique of fame substituting for glory… it certainly wasn’t conservatives who arranged that. In fact, I’d call the devaluation of glory, heroism, and even respect a core element of liberal media dominance, going back for decades. They’re the ones who want to designate glorious heroes by conferring the implicit approval of saturation coverage from the cultural machinery they control. The Left-media hasn’t exactly been chomping at the bit to tell the stories of American valor from the battlefields of the War on Terror. The term “hero” is bandied about very loosely by the masters of popular culture. The concept of villainy, meanwhile, has become almost entirely political. The only absolute monsters remaining to liberal-dominated pop culture are their designated ideological enemies.
I’ve watched “The Americans” from the beginning, and think it has mostly played fair within the storytelling parameters its creators set. We already know this isn’t going to end with a triumphant Phillip and Elizabeth packing up the kids for a happy return to a victorious Russia. Doom and tragedy loom over the protagonists of the series, who were our defeated antagonists in real life. Suspense and tragedy lurk as we wonder just how their doom will unfold, and what sort of people they will have become when it arrives. Maybe the producers hoped input from Oliver North would help attract rightward-leaning viewers who feared the show would deliver an endless anti-American harangue. On the contrary, in its creepy little way, “The Americans” is almost subversively pro-USA. It’s not the producers’ fault if too much of the audience doesn’t remember the very recent, and yet strangely distant, history they are recounting.