In the closing moments of the next “Deutschland 83” (SundanceTV), the first German-language series to air on U.S. television, protagonist Martin Rauch (Jonas Nay) orders a round of “crazy” cocktails for himself and a beautiful young woman. For all the novelty of a Cold War espionage thriller set in the bureaucratic heart of West Germany, however, the music cue that accompanies the moment is strangely familiar. Underlining the action with David Bowie’s “Modern Love,” released in 1983 and recently revived by Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig in “Frances Ha” (2012), the otherwise efficient, engrossing “Deutschland 83” exhibits its one notable flaw, a worrisome example of the medium’s fast-approaching future, which is a recurring sense of déjà vu.
It may be no more than a fluke of timing, coming amid TV’s current fever for remakes, reboots, and adaptations, but the family resemblance among “Deutschland 83,” “The Americans” (FX), “The Game” (BBC America), “Good Bye Lenin!” (Wolfgang Becker, 2003), and “The Lives of Others” (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006) provokes a certain fatigue—and a mounting fear that the medium is entering an era short on fresh invention. The architectural and psychological drama of the Iron Curtain has sustained popular literature, film, and television at least since John le Carre’s 1963 “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold,” of course, but what might the landscape look like when even the most skillful series, “Deutschland 83” included, appear half-recycled?
With “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men” (AMC) finished, “Hannibal” (NBC) now cancelled, and “The Americans,” plagued by anemic ratings, always in danger, it suddenly seems that an age largely defined by a certain brand of TV drama is finally approaching its end.
Don’t get me wrong. “Deutschland 83” is a genuine corker, with flashes of graphic style—an angular black-and-white dress, a carefully arranged drawer of cigarettes, cash, and Nescafé—and high tension as Martin’s Aunt Lenora (the impeccable Maria Schrader) recruits him to infiltrate the West German military under the alias Moritz Stamm. Yet its ambition thus far is to fulfill the conventions of the genre rather than to bend or transcend them. The more intimate complications of Martin’s new role, including the mother (Carina N. Wiese) and girlfriend (Sonja Gerhardt) he leaves behind in the East, are nearly drowned out by the white noise of speeches, news segments, and radio clips, and as a result the series strikes a utilitarian note. It’s as dutiful as Martin himself.
At times, for instance, the details of the geopolitical divide are rendered in bold, artful strokes; at others, the impersonal affect ends up leaching such distinctions of nuance. When Martin’s attempted escape from East German functionaries in the series premiere leads him, awestruck, through a bright Bonn supermarket, with its endless, perfectly arranged aisles of gleaming goods, a single sequence embodies the consumerist desire at the crux of the Cold War.
In the next episode, when an East German agent posing as a maid explains, with regard to a hotel-room safe, “[c]apitalists like to buy things then fear other people will steal them,” the visual daring of the earlier moment is undercut by the declaration. “Deutschland 83” is poised at the border between good and great television, but its tendency to rely on such undisguised shorthand ultimately prevents it from crossing over.
Yet this is, I suspect, where television is headed. Though their subject matter varies widely, the most popular dramas currently on air (“Empire,” “The Walking Dead,” “Scandal,” “How to Get Away with Murder,” “Game of Thrones”) all rely on soap opera for structure. This is not necessarily a drawback—Cookie Lyon (Taraji P. Henson) in garters under a knee-length fur, Annalise Keating (Viola Davis) asking after the dick pic on the dead girl’s phone, and Cersei Lannister (Lena Headley) walking naked through King’s Landing all set the Internet alight, and deservedly so, with provocative examinations of gender, sex, and power—but it is surely a limitation. When complex, understated, stylish TV drama can no longer capture the zeitgeist, much less win the Nielsen ratings, networks will court series with broader, and perhaps flatter, appeal.
In fact, were it not for those pesky German subtitles and SundanceTV’s niche position in the cable universe, “Deutschland 83” might well be considered a mainstream alternative to “The Americans.” By beginning with President Ronald Reagan’s famed “Evil Empire” address, “Deutschland 83″ establishes itself as a political animal, and its subsequent allusions—”99 Luftballons,” “Just Like a Woman”—suggest unsubtle rhetoric rather than the precision of fine art.
By contrast, “The Americans” concludes its extraordinary, extraordinarily brutal third season by setting the sounds of the “Evil Empire” speech within a series of dissolves, such that the force of Reagan’s words becomes inextricable from the Jennings family’s shifting emotional, spiritual, and ideological terrain.
Treading the same ground, “Deutschland 83” is satisfying, intelligent and a little threadbare, while “The Americans” is nearly unbearable, as dark and knotty as the Cold War itself, and one of the two or three finest dramas on television. Unfortunately, it’s the latter that may turn out to be the dying breed, and the former, with its sense of déjà vu, that most closely presages TV’s future.
“Deutschland 83” airs Wednesdays at 11pm on SundanceTV. The series premiere is available for free online until July 17.