Spies, sex, drugs and a beaming Ronald Reagan.
Those are the elements for one of the most arresting scenes you'll see this year on television. It will air Wednesday night on "The Americans," one of the most talked-about series this spring on cable TV.
The scene features a female Russian spy on a mission, a male congressional aide on cocaine, and Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell), the Soviet sleeper agent at the center of the FX series, breaking into a congressman's office safe late at night while the other two go at it under a portrait of the Great Communicator.
For all the sensational aspects of the scene, the key element is spies. They have come to populate the TV landscape this year to an extent not seen since the 1960s era of "Mission Impossible," "The Avengers" and "I Spy."
There's no Sputnik beeping over U.S. skies or Berlin Wall closing off the East these days. But there's an angry national debate about how deeply the National Security Agency should be allowed into the private lives of U.S. citizens. It includes widespread disagreement as to whether former government employees like Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning are traitors or whistle-blowers for sharing some of what they know about U.S. spyware and secrets. That cultural relevance is a primary reason that spy narratives are resonating with viewers these days, according to producers, authors and espionage analysts.
"You have different nations spying on each other, and it sort of now comes out that our own nation is spying on us," says Craig Silverstein, showrunner on "Turn," an AMC series about spies in the Revolutionary War that debuts April 6.
"Edward Snowden is obviously huge in the news right now," the former executive producer of "Nikita" adds. "And all of that is fanning the flames of interest in spy and espionage stories. … There's a sense that we've maybe gotten kind of out of control with our own espionage — spying on our own populace."
The TV season's most successful new network drama, "The Blacklist," features James Spader as Raymond "Red" Reddington, a one-time rising star in U.S. intelligence who went rogue and spent more than a decade selling secrets and guns to the highest international bidder.
The series opened in September with him surrendering at FBI headquarters. By the end of the pilot, he was partnered with a young FBI profiler, Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone), tracking down terrorists for Uncle Sam.
The series is one of the highest-rated on network TV with young adults and on-demand viewers. As a result, NBC rushed it back on the schedule this spring.
USA's "Burn Notice," meanwhile, a series about a covert operative who is "burned" or dumped by his government handlers, finished seven highly rated seasons for the cable channel last fall. It hit the magic number of 100-plus episodes and will now live happily ever after in syndication.
And then there's "Homeland." For all its ups and downs, the series continued to enjoy strong ratings in its third year. And being on a subscription channel, ratings don't matter as much as prestige, something "Homeland" earned again in 2013 with a best-actress Emmy for Claire Danes and best-writing Emmy for the late Henry Bromell. In 2012, it won the best-actor Emmy for Damian Lewis and the best-drama Emmy as well.
With the death of Nicholas Brody (Lewis), the show faces an uncertain future. But one thing is sure: With Brody gone, the focus will shift even more to Carrie Mathison (Danes), a bipolar CIA officer who has been offered her dream job of station chief in Istanbul.
AMC's "Turn" is typical of the way the prime-time spy genre is expanding into new eras. Despite the period trappings, most of the elements that make the genre so attractive to viewers today are at play in Colonial America: secrets, lies, moral ambiguity, warring ideologies, betrayals, blood and death.
At the heart of this series, which has a 10-episode commitment from the channel responsible for such series as "Breaking Bad" and "Mad Men," is the question of whether the young spies are traitors or patriots — much like the current debates about Snowden and Manning.
From the vantage point of today, of course, the spies in "Turn" are patriots helping to level the playing field for George Washington's ragtag troops against the greatest army in the world. But the triumph of the pilot is that it gives a genuine sense of the moral complexity and confusion of being a young adult living in revolutionary times and trying to do what is best for one's family amid conflicting calls to arms.
TV spy dramas address a similar kind of confusion today, says Peter Earnest, executive director of the International Spy Museum in Washington.
Taking note of how successful some of the series have been in attracting young adults, Earnest sees the breakdown of trust in traditional media and mounting cynicism among millennials as two of the factors feeding the popularity of spy stories on TV.
"You have the whole fragmentation of how people now get their news. And you have the proliferation of conspiracy theories, all sorts of theories, all throughout the Internet. And that feeds into part of this," the former CIA agent says.
"Many millennials [those born after 1980] are very disaffected with government and large organizations," he adds. "And part of that is concern as to what's behind those large institutions and an inclination to believe the worst about them. And so that whole world of intelligence and spying and espionage is that shadow world that they're intrigued by and would like to understand."
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.
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