‘The Day After’ really was the profound TV moment ‘The Americans’ makes it out to be

Characters Philip Jennings, Elizabeth Jennings and their children, Paige and Henry, tuned in to a movie about nuclear war on Wednesday’s episode of “The Americans.” In real life, ABC aired “The Day After” on Nov. 20, 1983; it remains TV’s highest-rated movie. CREDIT: FX

As seen on Wednesday’s episode of FX’s relentlessly riveting Cold War espionage drama “The Americans,” people really did set everything aside on the night of Sunday, Nov. 20, 1983, to watch ABC’s depressingly sober TV movie “The Day After.” It told the story of a handful of people in and around Lawrence, Kan., who had the misfortune of surviving an all-out nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Weeks of hype and debate preceded the broadcast: Should ABC have even undertaken such a potentially unnerving project? Would it be seen as a piece of propaganda for the anti-nuke movement? Would it scare voters so much that they might not re-elect Ronald Reagan to a second term in 1984? Would it thwart the White House’s long-term strategy for arms reduction? And what about the chillllldren? (Won’t someone please think of the children?) Advertisers were spooked; eventually, ABC offered a limited number of commercial spots during the two-hour movie, bargain-priced in the low six figures.

What it lost in revenue, the network gained in record-breaking ratings, especially for the all-important November sweeps: Some 38.5 million households watched “The Day After,” with viewership estimated at 100 million people, which clobbered the first episode of an NBC miniseries about the Kennedys. Nearly as many stuck around for a stern post-movie panel discussion hosted by Ted Koppel.

Even now, “The Day After” remains TV’s highest-rated movie, supplanting a 1978 prime-time airing of “Gone With the Wind.” (Though some will point out that a change in Nielsen metrics between 1978 and 1983 still keeps “Gone With the Wind” slightly ahead.)

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On “The Americans,” the characters all watch in stunned silence, including secret Soviet spies Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) and their kids, Paige (Holly Taylor) and Henry (Keidrich Sellati), and their friendly next-door FBI agent, Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) and his son, Matthew (Daniel Flaherty). Even the Russians who work at the Rezidentura in Washington tune in – Oleg Burov and Tatiana Ruslanova (Costa Ronin and Vera Cherny) watch it curled up on the bed.

Each member of the Jennings family reacts in his or her own way. Philip is moved to wonder if his and Elizabeth’s current mission (involving deadly bioweapons and viruses) is worth undertaking. Elizabeth, still strong in her Soviet allegiance, reminds him that the United States is the only nation cruel enough to have used a nuclear weapon – twice.

And poor Paige, a 15-year-old living with the secret burden of knowing that her parents are Soviet spies, considers “The Day After” to be more gloom and doom on top of her daily existence – brightened somewhat by the fact that she’s about to get her driver’s license and that Philip has relented to let her practice in his treasured Camaro.

“That ‘Day After’ movie. … You really think it’s all going to end like that? Everything?” Paige asks her father while they do the dishes. “That movie was pretty real, right?”

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“That’s why your mother and I do what we do, to keep things like that from happening,” Philip replies, always looking for an opportunity to put a positive spin on their espionage, partly to shield his daughter from the cold-blooded reality of it, partly to see if she’s a possible recruit.

“Do you really think it makes a difference?” Paige asks.

“I don’t know,” Philip says.

“I just hope we’re all together and quick,” Paige finally says. “It’s better if we just get wiped out straight away than get sick or anything.”

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Cue the first Yaz album, the Jenningses’ favorite LP. As the dirgelike “Winter Kills” plays, we are all left to ponder nuclear apocalypse.

Oh, how I adore and ache for Paige (thanks to Taylor’s spot-on performance). I think I love her mostly because I could have been her BFF. I was also 15 in 1983 and also marginally involved in my church’s youth group. I would have been drawn to her seriousness and her angst. The media fretted about how children and teenagers would process “The Day After,” but we were way ahead of them in the apocalyptic futility department.

Not very deep down, we all thought the future was an iffy proposition at best, and not just because of “The Day After.” The music we loved often alluded to nuclear wipeout (“The sky was all purple, there were people running everywhere,” Prince sang. “Trying to run from the destruction, you know I didn’t even care”). Just about any international hiccup brought about brink-of-war discussions and endgame scenarios.

Most of all, we understood that when (not if) it happened there was no such thing as survival. Bomb shelters and hiding under school desks – that was a baby boomer thing. In a post-“Day After” discussion in one of my classes, a kid raised his hand and said that when the sirens went off, he was going to stand outside and wait to be obliterated.

As it happened, I was not one of the 100 million Americans watching “The Day After” that night. I certainly wanted to, but for the fact that the Police’s “Synchronicity” tour played the Myriad Convention Center in Oklahoma City on Sunday, Nov. 20. (UB40 was the opening band.) I was with my friends at the concert and we all knew we were missing out on a big cultural TV moment, but really, what teenager wouldn’t make the same choice in 1983? Luckily, my aunt and uncle owned a VCR; I watched “The Day After” the day after.

I remember sitting in the same, stricken silence once the movie was over – with that parting shot of a bald, dying Jason Robards weeping in the rubble that had been his suburban Kansas City home. Another survivor, camped out with his family nearby, comes over to him and the two men embrace. The camera pulls back while the voice of another survivor, played by John Lithgow, transmits an unanswered radio call to “anyone there, anyone at all?” across emergency airwaves. The world as we knew it was gone.

If you watch “The Day After” now (easily achieved on YouTube), the gloom and doom still come through, even if the movie has taken on the slight aroma of old cheese. What was originally a three-hour movie planned for two nights got edited down to a one-night, two-hour story. The cuts are clumsy, as are the early-’80s special effects.

Like all disaster movies, the first half is given over to introducing everyday characters going about their everyday lives. In the background, the network news breathlessly reports trouble in East Germany and the Balkans. By the time people realize it’s serious, it’s too late. Missiles are launched and the country goes into panic mode. An electromagnetic pulse bomb is detonated high overhead, disabling electronics and power. Two warheads strike Kansas City. It really was terrifying to watch, mostly because we’d worked ourselves into such a froth in the days before it aired.

Anyone who knew anything about the true power of our nuclear arsenals knew that the carnage seen in “The Day After” would in fact be much, much worse; a note from the filmmakers says as much at the movie’s end.

“Who should watch it?” asked Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales, in a long review that ran two days before the movie aired. “Everyone should watch it. Who will be able to forget it? No one will be able to forget it.” He continues:

“It probably should be watched not so much because it is some sort of towering achievement in television (though achievement, of sorts, it is), but because after listening to all the back-and-forth on it, people ought to see the subject of the debate and make up their own damn minds. … As has rarely happened in television history, a work of fiction has achieved the urgency and magnitude of live coverage of a national crisis. One can imagine an ABC engineer quivering slightly as he presses the button on Sunday night that will send the film into millions and millions of American homes. Despite some predictions to the contrary, those homes and the psyches in them are certain to survive it. Nor will the republic likely perish from exposure to this highly convincing nightmare.”

Four days later, it was Thanksgiving. Generation Xers were asked at the table to say what we were thankful for. We’d been given a lot to think about. Were we grateful or hopeless?

And six Novembers later, the Berlin Wall came down, the Soviet Union came undone and somehow, we just didn’t think about nuclear annihilation as much. We found the courage to go on with our lives, but if today’s 40-somethings strike you as a little too cynical, a little too moody, a little too pessimistic in the face of your millennial sunshine – well, cut us a break. Like Paige, we still know deep down that everything could blow up at any minute.