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‘The Americans’: Stumbling into timeliness

Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell in the FX Cold War drama “The Americans.”Craig Blankenhorn/FX/Craig Blankenhorn

Some TV series march proudly and knowingly into relevance.

“M*A*S*H” was designed to be an allegory of the Vietnam War, which was still raging when the show premiered in 1972. “Homeland” was created to ask big questions about American involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq while we were engaged in those countries. “Will & Grace” deliberately entered the post-“Ellen” cultural conversation about sexual orientation, which was getting louder both in American society and in American courtrooms.

And “The Good Wife” was built to play off the constant flow of front-page news of yet another sloppy politician — Anthony Weiner, John Edwards, Eliot Spitzer, Mark Sanford — who gets caught betraying his spouse. Given the nature of men for whom power is an aphrodisiac, the show is evergreen. “The Wire” and “The West Wing,” they too were intended to mingle somehow with the recurring news events of their moment.


But some TV series seem to play off the headlines purely by accident. They stumble into timeliness. To wit, “The Americans,” the extremely entertaining and smart show currently in its second season on FX.

When it premiered last year, “The Americans,” which airs Wednesday nights at 10, was meant to be a period drama — with phone booths and tube TVs — about the Cold War in the early 1980s. It was a history of how the newly elected President Reagan had set his sights against the Soviet Union, joined together with the juicy story of communist sleeper agents near D.C. in a marriage arranged by the KGB during the Khrushchev era. It was a political recollection of the 20th century and a vibrant spy-genre piece at the same time.

But now, articles speculating about a Cold War 2.0 — and asking us not to speculate about a Cold War 2.0 — are everywhere. Every day, the news regarding Russia is dire, with Western countries urging President Vladimir Putin to change course in Crimea, and President Obama vowing to “stand with Ukraine.” Edward Snowden is still releasing damning material out of Moscow. And issues involving the imprisonment of the band Pussy Riot, violence against gays, and the killing of stray dogs before the Sochi Olympics continue to stir negative reactions and anti-Putin feeling.


Suddenly, in only a few months, “The Americans” has gone from being a record of a dark time in our relations with Russia to something a lot more germane and fraught. The show is now charged with all kinds of complex subtext about the present tense, about how brutal and hate-filled a Cold War can actually be beneath the icy attitudes. Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, played by Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell, are at times more committed to Mother Russia than they are to their own two children. With our post- 9/11 understanding of terrorist sleeper cells, the violent loathing of America by the Russian agents in “The Americans” is only too believable.

Rather than only offering titillating suspense about spies, undercover ruses, and (it must be said) bad wigs, “The Americans” provides insight into how cultural differences, misunderstood information, and paranoia can lead to overreactions and escalations. It shows how a country we might support against our enemy, such as Reagan’s support of Afghanistan against the Soviets, might wind up becoming our enemy someday.

“Person of Interest,” too, has taken on added meanings of late, in light of the Snowden revelations about the NSA. The show is about how a computer genius played by Michael Emerson used e-mail, phone calls, and surveillance footage to predict crimes. When the show premiered in 2011, it had a strong air of science fiction about it; now mainstream America is realizing that it’s far more truth-filled — and scary. We are constantly generating data, and it is definitely being monitored and used.


The most dramatic stumble into timeliness, though, might be “24,” a counterterrorism drama that was set to premiere — complete with an exploding airplane — in October of 2001. The series was put together before the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, but it became one of TV’s most incendiary shows overnight. It abruptly had its finger on the fearful pulse of our nation.

The contextual shift that’s changing the significance of “The Americans” is less sudden than that of “24.” But it nonetheless makes the show even more fascinating than it was last season. We still don’t know what will happen in Philip and Elizabeth’s marriage, as they actually begin to fall in love with each other many years after they took on the roles of husband and wife. Part of the joy and mystery of the show is hoping that they’re becoming more human — and less like automatons — the longer they’re in America.

But we do know what will happen to the KGB and the Soviet Union in the years to come, and knowledge of the end of the Cold War added pathos to the Jennings’ drive and conviction throughout the first season. Does the looming question of Cold War 2.0 somehow make their doomed undercover battle less poignant?


Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.