I love to watch spy shows and movies. I grew up watching “Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” “The Saint” (before Roger Moore moved on to the James Bond role), “Mission Impossible” (long before Tom Cruise started accepting missions) and Bond movies. I’m dating myself horribly, but there’s no question I’ve watched a few spy flicks over the years.
A good spy show offers an engaging plot line, larger-than-life leading ladies and men, nasty villains and exotic locations. Actually, I have to admit that for me, the exotic locations really make the movie.
I have walked the stone-set Red Square with the onion-shaped domes in the background (“Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol”), joined Carnival in Rio (“Moonraker”), played a high-stakes game of baccarat in Monte Carlo (“Casino Royale,” with David Niven as Bond), and moved in the shadows of East Berlin, politically stuck behind the Iron Curtain (“The Spy Who Came in from the Cold”).
Depending on the prevailing geopolitical landscape, a spy movie’s heroes fight Nazi agents, spies from behind the Iron Curtain, or operatives from Africa, the Far East or — for the last 20 years or so — spies and terrorists from the Middle East.
Based on the article so far, you may think I’m stuck in the old days, but nothing is further from the truth. Two spy shows have caught my attention of late: FX’s “The Americans” and Showtime’s “Homeland.” Both shows are set in Washington, D.C., but they couldn’t be more different.
“The Americans” is set during the administration of Ronald Reagan, who took a hard stance against communism. During the last shivering years of the Cold War, the Motherland has planted spies on American soil. KGB agents Mischa and Nadezhda have assumed the identity of Philip and Elizabeth, two ordinary American citizens in suburban Washington. The couple’s two children were born and raised in the U.S., with no inkling that their parents are Russian spies.
I contacted Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields, the executive producers of “The Americans,” for this story. They make the following observation about their central characters:
“In order to show how espionage really works, you have to show real spies. They’re real people, with real flaws. They make mistakes. Just as many operations go badly as succeed. But this is what makes espionage compelling, and why we thought it could make a good, long-form television series rather than just a fun two-hour movie.”
You can read the exclusive interview in its entirety here.
“Homeland” is set in the same town, many years later, amid the drawn-out wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sergeant Nicholas Brody, who had been presumed dead, is found in Afghanistan and shipped home to friends and family. Unbeknownst to him, CIA Agent Carrie Mathison is hot on his heels after a confidential informant whispers to her that an American prisoner of war has turned terrorist.
The first two seasons place Nicholas and Carrie squarely in the political maelstrom of Washington. Brody almost manages to pull off a suicide attack on the president and later kills the same president. At the end of the second season he is on the run, thanks in no small part to his relationship with Carrie, who exposed him as a terrorist. Carrie, for her part, has been sleeping with the enemy; she has shown brilliance in spy work and flamed out on several occasions. (I apologize for the spoiler if you haven’t caught up with the second season yet.)
I like the characters in both shows. They are not the superhuman spies we meet in the James Bond or “Mission Impossible” movie franchises. The characters inhabiting both “The Americans” and “Homeland” have deeply flawed personalities. They botch their missions, fall in love with the wrong people, drink a bit too much (I wonder how Bond managed to function with all those properly shaken martinis), and display the full range of human traits that we all have.
I’m looking forward to the third season of “Homeland,” which premieres Sunday, Sept. 29. We have to wait until January for the second season of “The Americans.” In the meantime, I can report that both shows have picked up several Emmy nominations — “Homeland” received 11 and “The Americans” two. I wish them all the best. I can’t wait to see which exotic locations I’m going to visit this season.
In addition to the Season 3 teaser, you can also catch full length episodes here.