'Killing Eve' joins TV wave of killer Russians

On TV and in movies, the Russians aren't coming. When it comes to playing bad guys - from ruthless mobsters to shadow...

Posted: Apr 6, 2018 3:57 PM
Updated: Apr 6, 2018 3:57 PM

On TV and in movies, the Russians aren't coming. When it comes to playing bad guys - from ruthless mobsters to shadowy spies - they're already here.

Although in some instances happenstance, the spate of headlines about Russians meddling in the U.S. election process clearly haven't gone unnoticed by TV writers. And if it's not exactly a return to the Cold War heyday of the old Soviet Union, just as terrorism found its way into dramas after the Sept. 11 attacks, some of these programs are clearly piggybacking on the heft brought to them by current events.

This week brings "Killing Eve," a BBC America drama starring Sandra Oh as an office-bound intelligence analyst in the U.K., who realizes there's an implacable Russian assassin (played by Jodie Comer) leaving a trail of bodies across Europe.

It's a more entertaining spin, frankly, than the still-in-release movie "Red Sparrow," which features Jennifer Lawrence as a Russian dancer recruited into a life of espionage. That's attributable in part to the off-kilter writing courtesy of Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who created and starred in the wonderfully dark and comic series "Fleabag," creating a strange link between Oh's analyst and her quarry.

There are plenty more examples of Eastern European heavies, though only some directly inspired by real-world parallels.

The FX period drama "The Americans" recently began its final season, drawing nearer to the point when the Berlin Wall fell and the Cold War ostensibly ceased. There's some irony in that, given the current chill, but it adds an element of timeliness to the acclaimed series beyond Reagan-era nostalgia.

The new season of "Homeland" has also introduced a significant Russian threat - not a surprise, given the Showtime drama's reputation for not just mirroring real-world headlines but occasionally anticipating them. Granted, the show's decision to install a female president in the sixth season (which premiered not long after the 2016 election) is a reminder its crystal ball has limits.

More Russian skullduggery has been woven into "Designated Survivor," the ABC show starring Kiefer Sutherland as the U.S. president, which has settled into more prosaic crises in its second season.

As noted, other shows that fall into this bucket are simply beneficiaries of convenient timing. AMC's "McMafia" - which deals with the Russian mob and international money laundering - premiered in February, but is actually based on a 2008 book.

To be fair, "Killing Eve" works pretty well as a simple serialized thriller and cat-and-mouse game stripped of the Russian context, which doesn't even begin coming into focus until several episodes into its run. (The show received a pre-premiere vote of confidence, having already been renewed for a second season.)

As is so often true, scripted entertainment - often consciously, sometimes presciently - has a way of tapping into apprehensions, which might explain why "speaks Russian (or can at least master the accent)" is again of those skills that are probably worth putting listing on an actor's resume.

"Killing Eve" premieres April 8 at 8 p.m. on BBC America.

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