I woke up this morning to another thin layer of snow and ice outside — how appropriate for watching The Americans, a terrific new series about the 1980s Cold War with the Soviet Union. It’s so refreshing when TV gets it right.

How exactly does this show get it right? Let me count the ways.

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1. An awesome, unexpected storyline. Rather than, say, yet another attempt to ride the wake of Mad Men, this one takes you by surprise: it’s a story about two KGB agents who have been embedded in American society for some 15 years, appearing as utterly normal Americans to everyone around them.

Is it a takeoff on Homeland? Only insofar as it places you into the mindset of people who want to do harm to the United States. To a large extent it goes further — our protagonists are the KGB agents, and the creepy antagonist is the FBI guy who hunts them. Wow.

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2. Two terrific leads, and a terrific supporting cast. And while we’re on the topic, let’s sing the praises of finding actors who are this good yet haven’t been on our radar for a while. Keri Russell is a far cry from her America’s sweetheart roles (Felicity, Waitress) as a clenched-jaw, steely-eyed ideologue whose dedication to her motherland has never wavered. And the Welsh actor Matthew Rhys does such interesting work here as the more ambivalent of the couple — she calls him “fragile” in one interesting scene — but also capable of a huge range of strategy, violence, uncertainty. These two people are great to watch as they live out their roles as ordinary American travel agents … most of the time, anyway.

This show wouldn’t work if Russell and Rhys weren’t such compelling, three-dimensional actors. Plus there’s the spycraft, which is just fun.

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3. An interesting relationship. No family could look less like an advertisement for heteronormativity, yet we learn immediately that Phillip and Elizabeth’s marriage is a fiction: they were paired up for this work by higher-ups and Elizabeth, at least, has never considered this to be anything more than a convenience. Yet with a 13-yr-old daughter and younger son who know nothing about their parents’ secret lives, this couple also has a lot to lose.

And yet when events transpire in the series pilot, we see the possibility that this show might turn into an interesting love story — perhaps one of the more counter-intuitive love stories we’ve seen. The Americans is a story about a marriage in mid-life, except backwards.

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4. Set in 1981, this show reminds you of those early Reagan vs. Evil Empire days while also showing it to you through the looking glass. How might that America have appeared from the perspectives of Soviets? Best of all is the episode that circles around that day in March 1981 when John Hinckley, Jr. attempted to assassinate the president — I won’t tell you more, because it’s too delicious to ruin.

Can I also say that it’s more fun without the cell phones and crime scene investigators? There: I said it.

5. It’s a show about politics. Real politics, as they appeared during the early 80s. It reminds you that the Cold War made politics interesting — and makes you wonder if all our culture wars have resulted from missing our old battles with the Soviets.

Why not spend your own cold day catching up with this great new bit of brain candy? It’s showing on the basic-cable channel FX, and all 6 episodes to date are streaming on Hulu. (There will be 13 episodes altogether this season, and the series has also been renewed for a second season, so there’s much more to look forward to.)

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Maybe I saw Sidney Lumet’s Network in high school — I remember the “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” scenes — but I wasn’t prepared to find its satire so brilliant 35 years after its initial release. What I’d completely forgotten was all the other satirical elements, from the sex scenes between Faye Dunaway and William Holden to the subplot of Dunaway’s attempts to sign a group of violent radicals, the Ecumenical Liberation Army, to a TV contract. Considering that it’s a satire of the TV-ification of America I can’t believe it’s so fresh today, and so prescient of what we experienced in television during the last generation. From the opening scenes to the conclusion, this film is perfect.

One of the film’s themes is the generation gap; so how perfect that Holden — anti-hero star of Stalag 17 and Sunset Boulevard, whose cynicism helped create such 1950s anti-establishment protagonists as Holden Caulfield — would play Max, the head of the United Broadcasting Service news division. Now in late middle age, he’s found himself defending principles and idealism against the über-cynical corporate types who are taking over UBS. Of these, Diana (Dunaway) is the worst: a gorgeous series programmer with a preternatural gift for repackaging TV to get a bigger market share. She can see that “the American people are turning sullen. They’ve been clobbered on all sides by Vietnam, Watergate, the inflation, the depression; they’ve turned off, shot up, and they’ve fucked themselves limp, and nothing helps.” Whereas Max and his news anchor, Howard Beale (Peter Finch) joke darkly about a new program like “Terrorist of the Week”:

Max:  We could make a series of it. “Suicide of the Week.” Aw, hell, why limit ourselves? “Execution of the Week.”
Howard:  “Terrorist of the Week.”
Max:  I love it. Suicides, assassinations, mad bombers, Mafia hitmen, automobile smash-ups: “The Death Hour.” A great Sunday night show for the whole family. It’d wipe that fuckin’ Disney right off the air.

Diana is utterly serious about such plans. She hires a radical black commie feminist to wrangle the crazy members of the Ecumenical Liberation Army into creating a popular new show (the scene of their contract negotiations is worth a Netflix subscription). Most of all, Diana can see that the newly insane Howard, with his TV rants about all the bullshit in American society, can be repackaged as The Mad Prophet for a new-and-improved news hour that also features Sybil the Soothsayer. Diana is television: for her, all publicity is good publicity, all political agendas can be transformed into catnip for audiences, there is no meaningful distinction between news and amusement. She doesn’t care in the least that Howard tells viewers to turn off their televisions, because she knows that his show gets more viewers than any competitor.

Even more dark is the film’s portrayal of Howard, who really is saying something important about TV — even though no one pays any attention:

Man, you’re never going to get any truth from us. We’ll tell you anything you want to hear; we lie like hell. We’ll tell you that, uh, Kojak always gets the killer, or that nobody ever gets cancer at Archie Bunker’s house, and no matter how much trouble the hero is in, don’t worry, just look at your watch; at the end of the hour he’s going to win. We’ll tell you any shit you want to hear. We deal in illusions, man! None of it is true! But you people sit there, day after day, night after night, all ages, colors, creeds… we’re all you know. You’re beginning to believe the illusions we’re spinning here. You’re beginning to think that the tube is reality, and that your own lives are unreal. You do whatever the tube tells you! You dress like the tube, you eat like the tube, you raise your children like the tube, you even think like the tube! This is mass madness, you maniacs! In God’s name, you people are the real thing! WE are the illusion! So turn off your television sets. Turn them off now. Turn them off right now. Turn them off and leave them off! Turn them off right in the middle of the sentence I’m speaking to you now! TURN THEM OFF… (He collapses in a faint on the set. The studio audience explodes with applause and cheers; the studio cameras pan out from his limp body.)

They don’t turn off their sets, as Diana well knows; they can hardly wait for more. The script by Paddy Chayefsky — his third to win an Oscar for Best Screenplay — is perfect at every turn. When I watched this last night with my friend Susan, we commented on one of those mini-moments in which Diana’s assistant (a very young Conchata Ferrell) pitches ideas for new series:

The first one is set at a large Eastern law school, presumably Harvard. The series is irresistibly entitled “The New Lawyers.” The running characters are a crusty-but-benign ex-Supreme Court justice, presumably Oliver Wendell Holmes by way of Dr. Zorba; there’s a beautiful girl graduate student; and the local district attorney who is brilliant and sometimes cuts corners. The second one is called “The Amazon Squad.” The running characters include a crusty-but-benign police lieutenant who’s always getting heat from the commissioner; a hard-nosed, hard-drinking detective who thinks women belong in the kitchen; and the brilliant and beautiful young girl cop who’s fighting the feminist battle on the force. Up next is another one of those investigative reporter shows. A crusty-but-benign managing editor who’s always gett… (Diana cuts her off there.)

No wonder the film won so many awards. Watch it again — it’s gone right up to my list of Best Films Ever.

I’d never seen “Glee” before — and let me say, it’s utterly delightful — but stumbled across its “The Power of Madonna,” that is, its very special episode on feminism.  And then I found hundreds of posts online, treating it as if it were an important intervention on feminism because the words misogyny, sexist, and objectification were used on a mainstream TV show. 

I’m tempted to suggest that a perky TV comedy can treat the topic of women’s feminist anger BECAUSE it’s perky comedy.  I’m tempted to trot out Susan Douglas’s notion of enlightened sexism again (Susan, perhaps I should receive commission?); point out that “girl power” is a fundamentally hobbled form of feminism; and remind us that Madonna is hardly an ideal feminist.  All of this is true.  But frankly, it’s just a pleasure to see a storyline in which high school girls get mad and seek a way to articulate a feminist identity (and then sing!).  At this point, us brow-beaten feminists will be thrilled with anything. 

The show starts with the girls in the glee club having a powwow about dating, a conversation that can be summed up by one character’s resigned assessment that “we have to accept that guys just don’t care about our feelings.”  When a well-meaning male teacher tries to intervene, an even more resigned girl pushes him back. “The fact is that women still earn 70 cents to every dollar that a man does for doing the same job.  That attitude starts in high school.”  (Wow. Count me happy on hearing this in prime time.)  Slowly the girls start to fight back and express themselves verbally as well as in song.  My favorite is when the “they just don’t care about our feelings” Asian girl takes a sexist boy’s head off:  “My growing feminism will cut you in half like a righteous blade of equality!”

They build up tension and resolve it by singing a lot of Madonna songs and gradually convincing the reluctant boys that this music shouldn’t make them feel uncomfortable.  There are some tedious side stories about various women asserting themselves sexually (to say no or otherwise).  (JEEZUS, people, does feminism always have to be exactly equivalent to sex?)  Best of all is a transfixing number with the cheerleaders doing a routine on stilts to “Ray of Light.”  Throughout, Jane Lynch is great as the unhinged director of the “cheerios” who idolizes Madonna. 

Please, let’s just stop calling this feminism.  I enjoyed this show perfectly well without having to engage it on those terms.  Feminism can’t be made palatable to a reluctant public by dressing it in a Madonna pop song for one episode; nor is it reducible to The Power of Madonna.  Let’s get happy about some feminist stuff coming up, and some women with powerful lungs belting out terrific Madonna covers.  But let’s just call this what it is:  “Glee” is just its own thing.  We can all be happy that these girls articulate a version of anger and empowerment, and hope that more TV shows engage with those subjects — hope, indeed, that more actual girls get angry and empowered.  Hell, at this point I’d take the Spice Girls’ version of girl power again.