MOSCOW — On a balmy afternoon, American actor Peter Jacobson is on the set of a Russian TV show, sitting at a table spread with red caviar, herring, pickles and shot glasses of vodka. Russian TV director Alexander Nazarov walks onto the set to give him a note about his character, a CIA officer. “The Russians have tricked you,” Nazarov directs Jacobson. “Why don’t you swear and scream a bit more?”
This is relayed into Jacobson’s ear by his Russian translator. “I understand,” Jacobson says to the cast and crew in shaky, newly learned Russian, sending them into fits of giggles. Then Jacobson, in character, rapidly releases a stream of English expletives, to the delight of his Russian colleagues.
For 10 days this spring, Jacobson, familiar to American audiences from “House” and USA Network’s “Colony,” was filming in Moscow in the hit Russian TV show “Adaptation,” a spy show that’s been compared to “The Americans.”
The latter, an FX drama about a family of Russian spies living in Virginia in the 1980s, will conclude Wednesday after six critically acclaimed seasons. The finale comes as America grows increasingly fixated on Russia in the face of alleged election meddling and an investigation into what the Trump campaign knew about it. “Adaptation,” its hugely successful counterpart, about an American spy in modern-day Russia, is much lighter in tone but just as resonant in its treatment of the countries’ turbulent relationship.
“We thought [our plot] could be a way for us to make peace between our countries,” says 33-year-old Stanislav Tlyashev, one of the show’s four writers, in Russian. “Humor is also necessary. . . . We can laugh at our problems and then leave them behind.”
Tlyashev says his inspiration comes from shows like the British crime drama “Broadchurch” and the American drama series “Trust.” “The Americans” influenced him, but only marginally, he said; he watched the first two seasons. Jacobson, who also had a minor role as an FBI agent in “The Americans,” says the two shows are technically versions of each other, except that “Adaptation” “is ultimately a comedy.”
For Season 2, Jacobson’s role as Ashton’s handler — the boss who sends him on missions — has been expanded. On set, it’s clear that Jacobson is the darling of the moment, the rare American temporarily implanted in his Russian co-workers’ lives. Jacobson is very much beholden to them: The Russian scripts and on-set interactions all have to go through his translator, even though his lines are in English (and later dubbed into Russian). “In some ways, the pressure is off,” he says. “I like the culture gap, I love the language barrier. They take really good care of me.”
“Adaptation” is the creation of the youth-oriented TNT channel, which is owned by Gazprom’s media arm. At one point last year, “Adaptation” was Russia’s most watched show in the 8 to 9 p.m. weekday slot, according to the state-operated market research firm Mediascope. One out of eight Russians aged between 18 and 30 are thought to have watched it, a spokeswoman for the channel said.
The series is packed with wit and slapstick humor. Ashton, a native Texan who is shrewd but naive at times, loses days of his life drinking vodka on a Russian train snaking through the Siberian wilderness. He’s barely able to stand the freezing temperatures, he can’t restart a car whose engine has frozen and his tongue gets stuck on a pipe. The show also satirizes the leaders of both countries — although Trump receives more gibes than President Vladimir Putin, including a Season 2 gag about the American president’s legendary awkward handshake.
A show about espionage, especially one in which Russia triumphs over America in the first season, could not be more auspicious. The West and Russia are in their most confrontational period since the end of the Cold War. If election meddling weren’t enough, they are also clashing over the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine, and Iran’s nuclear program. A second Russian show about spies, “Sleepers,” premiered last year on state-run television. The Moscow vs. Washington thriller is considerably darker than “Adaptation,” involving a fictional character many took to be Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. In the show, he is wiped out by a bomb.
In recent weeks, ties between Moscow and Washington have deteriorated even further, resulting in fresh sanctions that the United States and the European Union placed on Russians in Putin’s inner circle. They came in response to the poisoning of a Russian former double agent and his daughter in England by a Soviet-developed nerve agent (they both survived). The West blames Russia for the attack, a charge Moscow flatly denies.
The 53-year-old Jacobson was conscious of how “Americans are absolutely convinced that Russia got involved in our election in nefarious ways.” But once the New York-based actor arrived for Season 2, he began seeing things from a different perspective. “It’s always surprising to me that [Russians] do not buy into the American media narrative, and it makes me question it itself, which can only be healthy.”
Jacobson is speaking by a lake in suburban Moscow during set changes on his final day of filming. He is wearing a blue-and-white pinstripe shirt, a navy tie and a beige cardigan with leather elbow patches — the costume designer’s idea of what an American intelligence officer looks like. His face is coated in a layer of makeup that softens under the waning sun.
“To come here and be in the place that, once again, is being viewed by us across the ocean so negatively, is actually a great thing,” he says. Jacobson explains how Americans and Russians want the same things: to make a decent living and be with their families. “I love being here and seeing that we’re all trying to get by.”
Nazarov, 52, a towering figure with a mop of gray shaggy hair, has directed several Russian TV shows and trained as an actor in the fading days of the Soviet Union. He agrees that his homeland and the United States have more in common than most want to admit. “There are crooks and corrupt officials on both sides, but the majority of people are just normal.” In “Adaptation,” the feuding countries are shown having overlapping interests, but are wildly suspicious of each other.
He adds, “I told Peter [Jacobson], ‘If our show helps improve relations between Russia and the U.S., then we’ll have really accomplished something here.’”
That possibility could bode well for the show’s continued success. Plus, as Jacobson says, “you put smart people in interesting situations and sprinkle in the politics, and people will want to watch.”