In 1955, the TV show “I Led 3 Lives,” about an undercover FBI operative, wound down its second season with an episode titled “Child Commie.”
A 12-year-old girl — the Commie child — spends the night with the operative’s daughter. “Never underestimate a Commie,” he is warned, “even a baby one.”
Indeed. The Commie child immediately goes to work on the wholesome suburban girl, telling her “the truth” about George Washington — that, like so many other powerful Americans, he hurt poor people to enrich themselves.
This was pretty standard fare in the 1950s, as TV shows painted Americans and Russians in very black and white terms.
Now, with the Russians back as archenemies on the world stage, two of television’s most popular and critically acclaimed shows — “Homeland” and “The Americans” — have Russian antagonists.
But this time, the Russians are different.
In the case of “The Americans,” about Russian spies embedded in suburbia as travel agents who sometimes kill people in very creative ways, the enemy is depicted in a three-dimensional, almost sympathetic way. Viewers are tempted to root for the Commies. On “Homeland,” the enemy is ruthless yet principled and aggrieved.
“There is a more complex and nuanced view of the Russians — or at least these Russian characters,” said retired Gen. Michael Hayden, a former NSA and CIA director who consults with “Homeland” writers.
Two forces shape this new, nuanced portrayal. For one thing, Russia is not an existential threat to humanity.
“Russia has been a Class A irritant for four or five years now,” Hayden said. “But it’s at the level of irritation and disruption, not apocalyptic level.”
The other force is the transformation of television from episodic to novelistic. “Whether it’s ‘Mad Men’ or ‘Breaking Bad,’ these kinds of shows build these large, complicated worlds and then really deeply mine the emotional struggles of multiple characters — and you can empathize with them,” said Notre Dame Prof. Michael Kackman.
“The Americans,” by its creators’ admission, lucked into the Russia moment. The show was conceived as a nostalgic look at the lives of real-life spies.
“We’re asking people to look at what it’s like to be a soldier behind enemy lines,” co-creator Joe Weisberg said recently.
“Homeland” is a different story. The show premiered in 2011, and for several years the story lines held up a mirror to the terrorist threat in the post-Sept. 11 world. During the past season, which concluded last Sunday, the story centered on Russian meddling into the presidency, though amped up for dramatic effect.
In an interview before the finale, Mandy Patinkin, who plays intel mastermind Saul Berenson, said he pushed the writers to make this season not just a funhouse mirror of reality, but to accomplish what reality apparently cannot. “The mirror needs a moral, a lesson that offers something in a poetic, artistic sense,” he said.
Now that it has aired, it appears (spoiler alert!) Patinkin was referring to the show’s divisive and politically crippling president doing something totally out of character, but with character. Resigning.
“I’m ecstatic,” Patinkin said, “over this final episode and the offering it makes in terms of a moral possibility … about what you, as a leader, might consider doing to change the status quo.”