MOSCOW — If there is any glamour left in diplomacy, then it is here in Moscow, where ministry summits and U.N. Security Council vetoes garner breathless, fawning coverage on the nightly news.
And as for theatrics, look no further than Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s performance Wednesday, feigning disbelief at the firing of FBI Director James B. Comey: “Was he fired? You’re kidding.”
So is it any surprise that the day-to-day life of diplomats — of an earlier generation — is now a TV show? “The Optimists” is a new Russian series that brings a 1960s “Mad Men” aesthetic to the Nikita Khrushchev-era diplomatic set, airing nationally on state-run television between those acid news reports.
It tells the story of a young, plucky team of foreign specialists stuck in a Foreign Ministry backwater, battling the bureaucracy to revolutionize Soviet diplomacy through greater understanding of Western culture and habits.
But the plans hatched by the team, led by a brooding, disgraced former Central Committee member and a Latvian-American Communist who fled McCarthyism, are upended by the (real-life) downing of an American U-2 spy plane and capture of pilot Gary Powers, sparking a crisis in Soviet-U.S. relations that leads toward the darker conflicts, such as the Cuban missile crisis, of the 1960s.
The story is the brainchild of Michael Idov, an American screenwriter originally from Latvia who has carved out a niche writing screenplays about the intersection of Western and Russian life from a Russian point of view. A former editor in chief of the Russian edition of GQ and writer of the Russian TV series “Londongrad,” about an agency that makes arrangements for rich Russians in the British capital, he has written, with some caveats, about the relative freedom of TV work here in Russia. At least compared with journalism.
The idea of “The Optimists” is “not that the Russians are the good guys this time,” Idov said in a Skype interview from his home in Berlin. “But this time they’re the ones who get to go home and have families.”
Those families are each unhappy in its own way — one young diplomat who grows up in France must renounce his parents to secure his career in the foreign ministry. Another, Ruta Blaumane, a Latvian American whom Idov describes as a “Hitchcockian blonde,” cheats on her pilot-ace husband with a KGB spy and then rats out her new boss to him.
Betrayal is a key theme in “The Optimists,” and the first, 13-episode season grows progressively darker as the circle of secret accusations and denunciations grows.
But, undeniably, the series starts off deep in the comfort zone of Russian viewers fond of the Soviet past. Life under Soviet leader Khrushchev, particularly at the Foreign Ministry, looks pretty nice. The higher-ups enjoy boozy lunches at a swank jazz club; even the standing-room-only beer hall reserved for the lowly analysts could be a dive hotspot in modern-day Williamsburg, or Berlin’s Kreuzberg (but without the smoking bans).
Russian officialdom has also hailed the show.
Dmitri Kiselyov, the fire-and-brimstone political commentator who once said that Russia could turn the United States into “radioactive ash,” plugged it on his newscast last month as a colorful period piece. Lavrov, the acerbic Russian foreign minister, also said he watched several episodes and hoped the show would attract young diplomats, despite the “artistic license” employed by the show runners (diplomacy is more paperwork than raunchy affairs, he intoned).
In an interview after two episodes had aired, Idov said he didn’t think the show was too sunny, or a whitewashing of the period acceptable to Russian viewers and the state TV executives. He said that there was no censorship of his text or vision, and that he and his colleagues expected the early episodes of the show to produce some controversy.
“We’re actually quite prepared for accusations of Soviet nostalgia because the Soviet Union in our first few episodes is actually quite a lacquered, deliberately idealized replica,” Idov said, adding that the show challenged that replica in later episodes. “The reason is because we’re going to go further into the destructivity of the Soviet mind-set. . . . We’re peddling this for a purpose. Believe me, it’s not a nostalgic purpose.”
Khrushchev’s “thaw,” the decade or so after dictator Joseph Stalin’s death when repressions and censorship were relaxed in the Soviet Union, has proved a fruitful setting for a new breed of slow-burn Russian TV series, such as an acclaimed 2013 series, “The Thaw,” about 1960s filmmakers (the two series share the same producer, Valery Todorovsky).
But young Russians are perhaps more tuned into American series — such as “Game of Thrones,” “House” and “The Americans” — than Russian programs. Idov listed “Mad Men” and “The Good Wife” as influences (he began writing the script in 2010).
“Part of what allows me to succeed in Russia is a certain distance from the typical Russian television mode of thinking,” he said. “I try to preserve that distance.”
In Idov’s telling, his original idea was to set the show at a real-life Soviet design bureau where designers had created “incredibly innovative things, but the things they developed would inevitably end up in the trash.” But that “may not have been sexy enough,” he went on, and a co-writer suggested making the series about the Foreign Ministry, which provided access to diplomats for research.
The real-life Foreign Ministry has been revolutionizing diplomacy in its own way in the past several years, embracing a take-no-prisoners mind-set and a combative, trolllike presence on social media. Moscow’s acting envoy to the United Nations made waves recently when he told his British counterpart, “Don’t you look away from me!” on the floor of the Security Council.
But Idov looked taken aback at the suggestion that Blaumane’s character was based on the outspoken Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, who has pioneered an aggressive media strategy of taking the fight to the journalists themselves, both in the briefing room and on Facebook.
You can’t play “who is who” with the characters and real life, he said. Blaumane’s was a fully developed role (his favorite), Idov added, whose bourgeois affectations were thought out even down to the American toaster and coffee-maker she keeps on the show. Her costumes have a birds motif, a homage to Hitchcock.