A little while back, I wrote about The Americans, which just might be the best show on television. It’s the story of a pair of Russian spies living undercover in 1980’s America, and the toll that their double lives takes not only on themselves, but on their family. It’s a gripping piece of drama, one that uses its espionage hook as a way of exploring complex ideas about identity, loyalty, and self.
I mention that because it’s all but impossible to talk about Deutschland 83 without at least mentioning The Americans. After all, both are espionage stories set during the Cold War; both focus on a Communist spy who works to infiltrate the West; both are steeped in the music and pop culture of the time. But while The Americans uses its premise as a stepping off point, Deutschland 83 instead focuses on the mechanics of spycraft, following our protagonist as he snaps pictures, makes dead drops, works to maintain his identity, and tries to keep his superiors informed as to what’s going on.
That’s not to say that Deutschland doesn’t have its share of dramatic moments; it’s just that the stakes are entirely different, so much so that the comparison to The Americans often seems unfair to Deutschland‘s many great aspects. At its core, Deutschland is a spy story, and the tensions it’s working with all arise from that mechanic, as the film delivers knockout sequence after knockout sequence of infiltrations, manipulations, and near misses. More than that, the show lets its stakes arise from the Cold War setting, to the point where we’re reminded of the incredibly high stakes around which this war constantly revolved.
The result is an incredibly fun show, one that feels like a fantastically taut little thriller that keeps you on the edge of your seat throughout. It took me about an episode to get into its rhythms, but as you start to realize just how invested Deutschland is in its double-crosses, false identities, and scheming intelligence heads, it’s hard not to get swept up in it. And if it’s not the rich, superlative experience that The Americans is, that’s okay; to insist on that would be to rob yourself of just how exciting and thrilling this show is.
Mind you, Deutschland isn’t perfect; it’s a bit overstuffed at times, with a few plot threads that end up feeling pretty extraneous by the end (that may be most true with a theoretically big revelation in the final episode that feels pretty pointless in just about every way). But by and large, this is great summer television – smart, exciting, tense, and well-made throughout. And man, what a killer 80’s soundtrack throughout.