They watch "The Americans" and "Homeland" to try and learn more about that world — even as the shows speak to their paranoia about the powers that be.

And it's not just paranoia. "The Americans" and "Homeland," in particular, speak to the confusion of the times. The dark, grainy, quick-cut opening montages for both shows are remarkably similar in the way that they jump from an image of innocence — for example, of a little girl playing with a Hula Hoop — to an atomic bomb explosion or a scene filled with carnage as discordant newsreel voices of public figures echo in our ears. It's all confusion, lies, noise and the possibility of instant death and mass destruction.

There is also a positive story line in these series, at least, in "The Americans," "Homeland" and "The Blacklist." It's a narrative of female empowerment.

For instance, the female leads of "The Americans" and "The Blacklist" both have a back story of being victims of assault. In becoming professionals, they learned the skills both physical and mental to no longer be victims. A scene last week with Jennings ending a vicious hand-to-hand fight with a man by repeatedly slamming her opponent's arm in a car truck door despite his screams of agony speaks to this newfound power.

Symbolically and culturally, that's powerful television. But does it bear any connection to reality?

That depends, say the analysts. "The Americans," for example, is based on something that's real, but by the time Hollywood gets done with it, the series is essentially the opposite of what the real experience of undercover operatives would be.

John Prados, senior fellow at the National Security Archive and author of 20 books on the world of espionage and intelligence, says that while the series is based on the 2010 case of 11 Russians who were discovered to be living undercover as middle-class American citizens, it ultimately "falsified" the reality of that kind of situation to the point where it is the "opposite" of what operatives would actually do.

"My thought about 'The Americans' is that the producers and the script writers have put together a package based on, 'What are the most dramatic things to happen in a spy story?' " Prados says. "You know: Somebody gets assassinated, somebody gets blackmailed, this thing, that thing."

And while he appreciates the need to entertain, he also thinks viewers should understand that the "entire purpose of that kind of espionage operation is the opposite of what people are doing on that show. You don't embed spies in a foreign country and have them running around killing people and exercising all these special operations that the KGB was doing in 'From Russia with Love,' the James Bond movie. You put those people there to attract no attention. That is their purpose."

Earnest, who worked in Soviet affairs and lived undercover abroad during his CIA career, agrees to some extent about the distortion.

"Illegals — that's what the Russians called them — are real," he says. "But they were truly sleeper agents. And the reality part is that illegals would never do as many things as the characters on 'The Americans' do on each program."

Does that mean he hates the series?

Not at all. In fact, his museum is launching a temporary exhibit on the AMC series Wednesday.

"Any Hollywood rendition of reality is always compressed," he says. " You've got to solve the case in 90 minutes — that sort of thing. … But living undercover is the very, very stressful and challenging part of being undercover overseas. … And 'The Americans' shows that."

Even if they do trick it out big time with sex, drugs and a smiling Ronald Reagan.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

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