FX’s “The Americans,” set in the last great gasp of the Cold War in the early 1980s, jogs memories of Yaz and K-cars, but the third season also is marked by reminders of just how much history repeats itself.
Executive producers Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields talked to Variety‘s “PopPolitics” on SiriusXM about one of the season’s storylines: the efforts by Soviet-spies-as-suburban-couple Elizabeth and Philip Jennings (Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys) to glean any information about the CIA’s covert operation to support insurgents in Afghanistan, where the Soviet occupation is quickly turning into that country’s Vietnam.
“What we were very aware of is that this war that the Soviets fought for 10 years was of course something that we failed to learn our lesson from,” Weisberg says, noting that former Soviet soldiers went on TV and radio and pleaded with the U.S. not to go into the country after 9/11.
“They said: ‘You guys don’t know what you are getting into. We do. And we are going to tell you and please for your own sakes don’t do it.’ And, of course, we waded into the exact same waters and lost the war for more or less the exact same reasons.
“Obviously everyone knows that history repeats itself, that isn’t news to anybody, but on our show, to be able to go back to the earlier war, and from a more sympathetic viewpoint, now that we have stumbled sort of in the same way, to see the pain and suffering that the Soviets endured and see by a certain degree a substantial amount of it was caused by arms that we paid for, and were inflicted by people who were our allies then but are our enemies now, is just sort of poignant and sad.”
The show draws a lot of its tension from the severe rift in Soviet-U.S. relations during that period, and since “The Americans” debuted, present-day relations between Washington and Moscow have deteriorated.
The analogy of 1982 to 2015 goes only so far, Fields says, as that era was one of an existential threat of thermonuclear holocaust. “That feeling is gone now,” he says. “There is the threat of terror now, but nothing seems so apocalyptic as that, and then there is just the recurrent shock that people see this as a period show, when to me and Joe, it’s just our high school years,” he says.
This season features references to Philip having gone through a kind of KGB sex training, practice to prepare himself for gleaning information from extramarital encounters, all in duty to the home country. Weisberg talks about the true-life case that inspired the storyline.
The show tries to stay faithful to the era with vintage news clips and commercials. One, a sexually suggestive spot for Love’s Baby Soft, a baby powder, really did run on TV. See it here.
Comedian and activist Dick Gregory, who participated in the Selma-to-Montgomery march in 1965, talks about some of the misperceptions of that chapter in the civil rights movement. He was actually in Selma two years earlier, for a voting rights campaign in 1963, and while his celebrity status helped draw crowds and media interest, he knew that he also had to make a genuine commitment, one that meant multiple arrests along with his wife, Lillian. Gregory talks about how he overcame his fears, even that he would be killed, before going to Selma and other parts of the South, including Greenwood, Miss.
David Cohen of Variety and Nikki Schwab of U.S. News talk about trust in government at a time when dramas like “House of Cards” and “Scandal” give such a dark view of D.C. and the motivations of politicians. They also talk about why, despite ample cases in the past, politicians are still prone to the temptations of expensive airline travel and lavish office space.
“PopPolitics,” hosted by Ted Johnson, airs Thursdays at 2 p.m. ET/11 a.m. PT on SiriusXM’s politics channel POTUS 124.