There's a new spy drama on Russian TV about American sleeper agents And guess what? It's surprisingly not bad
There’s a new series on Russian network television called “Sleepers.” Directed by Yuri Bykov (best known for the films “The Major” and “The Fool”) and written by Sergey Minaev (whose credits include “Soulless” and “Media Sapiens”), the show is about competing Russian and American intelligence agents. It costars Igor Petrenko as Federal Security Service officer Andrey Rodionov and Dmitry Ulyanov as a journalist named Ivan Zhuravlev — two characters with diametrically opposite political views. On the show, foreign “sleeper” agents “activate” during an international crisis, in order to orchestrate a “color revolution” in Russia. The premiere prompted a wave of accusations that “Sleepers” amounts to Kremlin propaganda, as well as criticisms that it relies on genre cliches and stilted dialogue. Egor Moskvitin took a closer look at the show and discovered that it’s actually not half bad.
Update: On October 13, “Sleepers” director Yuri Bykov announced that he plans to leave cinema after his current project, explaining on Vkontakte that he now regrets making the spy series, which he says “betrays Russia's entire progressive generation.” Bykov, who's known as a leftist oppositionist with strong “patriotic” views on foreign policy, says “Sleepers” failed because of his own “stupidity and cowardice.” Speaking to Meduza, the filmmaker said, “Many people looked to me as some kind of guide, which was wrong, because I'm a human being who's imperfect in many ways. [...] I'm aware of how most people online reacted, and it seems to me that they see me now as a traitor to my previous films.”
Libya, May 2013. ISIS militants storm a Russian diplomatic mission, and the commanding Federal Security Service Colonel (played by Igor Petrenko) has to make a terrible sacrifice to save the life of a cryptographer. After a bloody cold open, viewers are warned that “Sleepers” is a work of fiction, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
The show then flashes back two days to a peaceful scene in Tripoli, where a team of Russian officials (whose ill-fated leader is played by Sergey Minaev, the show’s screenwriter) are closing a major energy deal. Unfortunately for the Russians, the CIA catches wind of “Project Dragon Power,” and Langley promptly activates its “sleepers” in Moscow. One of them turns out to be a high-ranking Foreign Ministry official who later helps ISIS stage the attack on Russia’s Libyan embassy.
After a well choreographed shootout, the action moves to Moscow, where the U.S. “sleepers” — hitmen, politicians, and journalists — start getting their new marching orders. Washington also adds a “color revolution” expert to its Russian diplomatic mission, who acts as a handler for the fifth column. In the very first episode, the conspirators frame the Federal Security Service for the assassination of a popular anti-corruption crusader — “the founder of the Russian Wikileaks” — after he promises to publish scandalous, albeit unverified, documents about a top-secret state procurement deal. The character is closely modeled on Alexey Navalny, but the show insists that it’s purely a work of fiction.
Immediately after “Sleepers” premiered, viewers started arguing about it on Facebook. More than anything, people can’t seem to get over the fact that it’s directed by Yuri Bykov, whose motion pictures “The Major” and “The Fool” are just as much in opposition to the authorities as Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Oscar-nominated film “Leviathan.” But Bykov’s political beliefs have been consistent, and his irritation with Russian domestic politics is no obstacle to his views on foreign threats. In interviews, the director has said repeatedly that he’s certain there’s a geopolitical campaign being waged against Russia. Adversaries abroad don’t wash away Bykov’s worries about Russia’s internal problems, but the perceived danger does fuel his passion for defending the country’s borders. Criticizing him for this clearly sincere concern is a bit strange, but viewers are doing it anyway.
In fact, Bykov’s involvement in the project makes it far more interesting. Like with “The Major” and “The Fool,” psychological authenticity exists alongside various socio-political stereotypes in “Sleepers.” The show’s three leads — a federal agent named Andrey (played by Petrenko), an opposition journalist named Ivan (Dmitry Ulyanov), and his wife, a gallery owner named Kira (Natalya Rogozhkina) — are thoroughly believable in their character development and conflicts. The rest of the show, sadly, is a by-the-numbers caricature full of ham-handed, unsubtle political commentary. The other actors and their dialogue, moreover, don’t improve anything. In one scene, an FSB agent derails an online discussion by repeating Vladimir Putin’s notorious joke about “if grandma had balls.” The character modeled on Navalny, meanwhile, talks about “poking the crooks with a stick.”
“Sleepers” doesn’t compare to U.S. shows like “Homeland” and “The Americans,” or the British series “The Night Manager,” but it’s unexpectedly close to something like the Scandinavian show “Occupied” (about a fictional Russian takeover), or even HBO’s “The Newsroom” and FX’s “American Horror Story.” Both “Sleepers” and “Occupied” share a degree of insanity and a readiness to squeeze everything possible from the current political climate and widespread hysteria.
The similarities between “Sleepers” and “The Newsroom” and “American Horror Story” aren’t so obvious, but all three shows are devoted largely to commenting on the latest socio-political national developments, and the showrunners often take positions on the issues. The current season of “American Horror Story” is a dystopian portrayal of America under Donald Trump, seen through the eyes of the Democrats whose hopes were dashed in November 2016. No matter how hard showrunner Ryan Murphy tries to ridicule both sides of the political aisle, it’s instantly clear whose side he’s on.
Things are a bit more complicated with “The Newsroom,” whose creator, Aaron Sorkin, holds strong liberal views on domestic politics, while maintaining a love for the military and aggressive foreign policy that’s usually associated with Republicans. Any soldier is dearer to Sorkin than the best-read intellectual windbag, and in this sense Sorkin and Bykov are surprisingly kindred spirits.
Ironically, “The Newsroom” only attracted a modest audience on the ultra-liberal premium cable network HBO, while “American Horror Story” has been a hit on FX, a basic cable wing of 21st Century Fox, whose right-wing news network Fox News needs no introduction. The failure of the former and the success of the latter, however, have less to do with politics than with the shows’ commercial viability.
“Sleepers,” on the other hand, airs on a Russian federal network, where it’s a lot harder to separate commercial and political interests, but one thing is clear: the show’s focus on espionage can draw a wide audience, and the toying with socio-political issues can lure more intellectual viewers.
That’s why the good guys on “Sleepers” have portraits of Putin hanging in their offices, while the bad guys put up pictures of Boris Yeltsin, London red double-decker buses, and the Eiffel Tower. In a dig at Scotland Yard, the traitor from the Foreign Ministry is blackmailed with threats that his daughter will be stripped of her British visa, denied the opportunity to finish studying at Cambridge, and caught with drugs at a party in London. The opposition journalist (one of the show’s stars) lives in an incredible mansion, drives a BMW, and has a whole team of assistants. The show’s main FSB agent has an office that’s no less impressive, along with a large team and a wise ethnic friend named Zelimkhan Ibragimovich. There are bad North Caucasians, too, but they’re generally the same spoiled gilded youths as the Muscovite bloggers on the show.
All the underhanded plot twists take place at the U.S. embassy or the upscale “Herzen” cafe. Reporters line up to interview the Navalny-like character, but the journalists are all foreigners. At one moment in the show, the new U.S. ambassador complains that his airplane seat was next to “some dumb woman ranting about the fight against breast cancer” — a scene clearly meant to show his political hypocrisy, given that he undoubtedly poses as a feminist back in the United States. Recalling Evgeniya Brik’s character in “The Optimists” (a miniseries that aired on Rossiya-1 earlier this year), Paulina Andreyeva plays a TV anchor, who’s also the nervous mistress of our journalist hero. Producer Fyodor Bondarchuk shows up as a deputy prime minister, and screenwriter Sergey Minaev plays a top executive at a state corporation. (Spoiler alert: Minaev eats it in the pilot’s cold open.) Director Yuri Bykov even has a cameo. The show “activates” the sleeper agents with a bit of comedy: one gets a text message reading, “Time to wake up!,” another gets the message in flyers for a fictional coffee house, and another is contacted at Moscow’s famous “Friendship of the Peoples” fountain at the VDNKh amusement park.
It’s actually pretty fun collecting all these Easter eggs, and the show’s aggressive themes make you want to see how the season ends. Taking offense to “Sleepers” makes about as much sense as objecting to the Russian theatrical release of Armando Iannucci’s “The Death of Stalin.” It’s also worth noting that “Sleepers” is giving unprecedented exposure to oppositionist ideas on Russian primetime network TV. The whole show is dialogue about corruption and how it’s “protected at the highest levels.” Yes, these speeches might belong to the loathsome, hysterical characters, but the words are still there. In this sense, the series is itself a kind of “sleeper agent” that offers something for everyone.