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Spies, Bananas, and the Berlin Wall: ‘Deutschland 83,’ the Summer’s Best New Show, Premieres Tonight

SundanceTV’s recent hot streak continues with the debut of a show about the cold war.

To the casual viewer, this week represents a rare respite from what has become a veritable deluge of summer programming. On Monday, I wrote about the fifth-season finale of Game of Thrones, and tomorrow I’ll check in on the second season of True Detective, set to arrive this Sunday night on HBO. In the shadow of these colossi, I’d understand if you chose to spend your Wednesday evening reading a book, speaking to friends who actually exist, or even stepping foot outside — literally anything other than sitting on your couch, staring expectantly at the flat screen in front of you. But I am here to caution you against these worryingly healthy urges. Because tonight, like a ray of sunlight between the season’s noisiest squalls, my favorite TV show of the summer arrives.

Deutschland 83 premieres at 11 p.m. on SundanceTV, a scrappy channel in the AMC family that has earned both acclaim and trust for its investment in thoughtful, non-blockbustery programming. (Top of the Lake, my favorite series of 2013, aired on Sundance. The network’s best ongoing show, Rectify, returns for a third season next month.) It’s an eight-part series about a baby-faced East German soldier named Martin who is secreted into the West German army as a spy in 1983, when the Cold War was at its hottest and synth-pop was at its coolest. If you think this sounds a bit like The Americans, you’re right. In fact, tonight’s premiere begins at the precise moment that The Americans ended its third season: With Ronald Reagan delivering his dramatic “Evil Empire” speech to the applause of his allies and the disgust of his foes. And while fans of that excellent FX drama will find much to like here, so, too, will those scared away by The Americans’s hammer-and-sickle brutality. Despite Deutschland 83’s paranoid, end-times setting — NATO is moving nuclear warheads into Europe; fallout contingencies are discussed like soccer scores — it is wonderfully stylish and bright. It rises and rises, like a red balloon through a mushroom cloud.

A quick word of caution for those averse to reading words on screens: As befits its name, Deutschland 83 is filmed entirely in German. (Indeed, it’s thought to be the first all-German-language television series to air in the United States.) A follow-up word of assurance: It won’t faze you a bit. Married cocreators Jörg and Anna Winger bring a fascinating transnational perspective to their work; he’s from Cologne, she’s an American. So while Deutschland is deeply rooted in the specifics of a time and place we rarely see onscreen — if you didn’t know bananas were a big deal in East Berlin, you soon will — it crackles and pops with a distinctly American energy. It delights in genre absurdity, from lo-fi lock picking to comically snarling guard dogs; it leans into soap-operatic excess. Let me translate this for you into the simplest terms possible: Deutschland is a total blast.

If there’s anything overtly Teutonic in the storytelling, it’s an almost ruthless efficiency. The first 20 minutes of tonight’s premiere introduce us to Martin (Jonas Nay), a dogma-averse foot soldier who patrols the communist side of Checkpoint Charlie by day and spends his nights fretting over the two blonde Frauen in his life. His single mother, Ingrid (Carina N. Wiese), is in need of a kidney transplant. His girlfriend, Annett (Sonja Gerhardt), is devoted but too far away. It’s a distance that doubles practically overnight when Ingrid’s sister, the chic, chain-smoking Stasi agent Lenora (Maria Schrader), forcibly recruits Martin for a top-secret mission: He will report for duty in Bonn as Moritz Stamm, the new aide-de-camp to a high-ranking West German general named Edel (Ulrich Noethen), and attempt to document the realpolitik strategizing behind NATO’s suddenly noisy bluster.

At first, Martin wants none of this. As soon as Lenora and her undercover ally Tischbier, a casually radical professor played by Alexander Beyer, present Martin with his first pair of brilliantly white sneakers, though, he takes off in them. (One of director Edward Berger’s many sly visual jokes is that what eventually slows Martin’s sprint is the hypnotically vast selection at a local supermarket. Bananas!) But while it’s Lenora’s promise of a transplant for his mother that initially keeps Martin in play, soon enough the quiet allure of the West begins to ensnare him more completely. Martin-as-Moritz befriends the general’s son, Alex (Ludwig Trepte), a rebellious pacifist, and catches the eye of the general’s daughter, a soul-singing beauty named Yvonne (Lisa Tomaschewsky). He follows his first fast food burger almost immediately with a second. While Martin’s espionage abilities remain decidedly amateur — he drops his first attempt at a brush pass in the grass; a tussle with a foreign agent ends with a bloody nose and bruised pride — he makes up for it with an infectious, almost adolescent vigor. While the grown-ups fret over annihilation, Martin can’t help but act his age, treating honeypots like prom dates and getting more worked up over a bootleg Walkman than a critical micro-recorder. The smile on his face when he hears Duran Duran for the first time could knock down the Berlin Wall.

It’s this insistent, new wave beat that truly separates Deutschland 83 from cable’s dreary gaggle of stone-faced double agents. (Needless to say, the show’s soundtrack is killer, from New Order to Nena.) Sure, the end of the world is looming, but Martin and his contemporaries can’t help but thrill at their discovery of it, on both sides of the border. There are no villains here, no ideological bogeymen. Just average people seeking normalcy in a decidedly abnormal context. Like all great spy stories, Deutschland 83 is really about the uncovering of selves, not secrets. By raising the political and emotional stakes to Defcon 1, the series makes youth feel as explosive as an H-bomb. The threat of mutually assured destruction has never been so much fun.