The Americans, which airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. Eastern on FX, is the most startling show on television. Not because its adultery-and-violence quotient make it a program I cannot recommend—that’s common these days. It’s startling because it teaches the history that schools skip and Hollywood scorns. The Americans, set in the first year of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, takes communism seriously. It depicts Soviet spies who kill on command and domestic traitors who enable them.
That’s extraordinary because U.S. school kids these days learn almost nothing about the Cold War except that Sen. Joe McCarthy made up numbers about communists in government jobs. The truth is that the Cold War was a grim twilight struggle that the United States had to win, or else fall into slavery. Americans who stood up to communism were not pure, and The Americans reflects that, but what they opposed was clearly evil.
We won, and the twilight continues. But if we don’t remember the history of having to combat the agents of a virulent -ism that gave its advocates a license to kill, we may fail to keep watch on the agents of Islamism, the political wing of Islam. I’m thankful that the New York Police Department has an anti-terrorism squad that infiltrates radical Islamic groups—but Manhattan liberals protest such targeting.
The Americans also does well in portraying the internal tensions of the husband-and-wife spies who are the show’s protagonists: American freedom and family reality always threaten to wash out the brainwashing of their youth. The series has its negatives, as mentioned, but it shows us that past threats were real. Some current ones also are.