Why you should be watching The Americans

Feature Michael Noble 12 Jul 2013 - 07:00

Sharply-written, character-driven undercover spy drama The Americans is greatly deserving of your time. Here's why...

Greetings comrades! Have you been watching The Americans? Nyet? Well, make yourself comfortable, tovarishches, it’s time for some Soviet-style re-education.

Like Judi Dench in Casino Royale, we all miss the Cold War.  Add it up. George Smiley, Arnie holding a hot rock in his hand, Elton John’s video for Nikita. In fact, the fall of the Soviet Union was so universally regarded as a bad thing that even a repeat viewing of Threads cannot convince otherwise.

In some respects, it never really went away. At time of writing, Edward Snowden is (presumably) hidden somewhere in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport, avoiding extradition to the United States through the simple convenience of Russian antipathy to America. More pertinently, The Americans’ creator, former CIA agent Joe Weisberg, was inspired to develop his series after it was discovered that a Russian spy ring was operating in the US as recently as 2010.

Of course, Weisberg still had to go back to the actual Cold War for his show. Set in Washington DC in 1981, it introduces us to Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell), a good looking suburban mom ‘n’ pop who just happen to be deep cover Soviet spies. It’s very deep cover. They’ve been operational for decades, their accents and mannerisms are flawlessly American and, oh yeah, they’ve got two kids who have no idea who their parents really are.

The setting is a masterstroke, and not merely for the details such as beige suits, reel-to-reel tape players and hideously boxy cars. Turning the clock back thirty years is great from a technological point of view. There’s a bigger emphasis on placing bugs in secure offices and photographing documents with tiny film cameras. Harvesting data from major IT firms isn’t just an invasion of privacy on an industrial scale, it’s also rather dull from a dramatic point of view. It’s much more fun to see a nervous agent attempt to place a listening device on a target while the clock is ticking.

Like Mad Men, the show intersperses fictional characters with real history and as a consequence we get to see their reaction to events with which we are familiar. Early on in the season, President Reagan is shot. We see the responses of the characters to this event with the fun of knowing more than they do. Most of their assumptions are wrong, but seeing their reaction highlights just how paranoid those times were. With any luck, the show will continue to follow events in subsequent seasons, meaning that we’ll get their reaction to Glasnost, the new era of diplomacy either side of the Iron Curtain and the release of Sting’s conciliatory masterpiece Russians. 

As the lute-playing Geordie tantra-master taught us, the Russians love their children too. And each other. The show is more about the marriage than espionage and a natural focus is made on the strange, strange relationship at the heart of it all. We meet Elizabeth and Philip late on in their mission when, after years of playing husband and wife they start to fall in love with one another for real. Of course, this would make things complicated enough (it is a job requirement for them to be unfaithful), even if it wasn’t for their changing attitudes. They’re moving in different directions, Philip is becoming increasingly attracted to the American way of life, while Elizabeth remains a steadfast believer. This adds tension to their marital life, while providing a metaphor for the changing Soviet attitudes. We’re in the Brezhnev era but Gorbachev is only around the corner.

It’s fantastic drama, in both senses of the word. Yes, it stretches credibility at times, but for the most part we’re happy to go along with it, mainly because the characters are so compelling. Like all good undercover dramas, a strong focus is placed on trust, or the absence of it, in a situation where it is most needed. And that’s before we get to the question of who is right or wrong.

Talking of compelling characters, meet FBI Agent Stan Beeman. Played with a softly-spoken intensity by Noah Emmerich, Beeman is the show’s putative antagonist, on the trail of the KGB while living, rather conveniently, next door to the Jennings. A curious mixture of coldness and geniality, Beeman is a sharp and astute agent, with his own experiences of deep cover work. His own wife is unable to understand him (the Beemans’ growing estrangement making a neat counterpoint to the ever closer Jennings), but neither is the audience. He is the character who, if this really was 1981, would be the hero and yet, of all the leads, he’s the one we probably know least well. As he manipulates those around him, we see just how similar American spies are to the Soviet ones.

In a nice touch, the Russian characters actually speak Russian. Well, apart from the ones pretending to be American that is. It sounds like a small thing, but the absence of an Alan Cumming prattling on about being ‘inwincible’ is flattering to the viewer. It’s even used as a charming character reveal, when Beeman’s attempt at pronouncing a few words in Russian reveals his true intentions. The dialogue is very well written in general and you’d be advised to pay close attention. It’s scattered with double meanings. Listen to Beeman describe Philip as ‘quite a hustler, but he plays hard and fast with the rules’. Is he describing his racquetball technique, his secret life or his growing reluctance to follow KGB directives to the letter? Possibly all three.

That said, anyone expecting a meditative spy drama on the lines of The Lives of Others or Rubicon will receive a metaphorical karate chop to the throat. There’s a lot of action in The Americans. Philip can dispatch multiple assailants with the speed and skill of Jason Bourne in a hurry. These being equal-opportunity Commies, Elizabeth gets in on the action too and proves rather handy in a tight spot. They are not sleeper agents, silently awaiting activation, they are very much active from the get-go, and the show provides some excellent moments of tension and action. It’s also rather instructive on the use of a telephone directory as an improvised weapon. Another advantage that the eighties have over us – try duffing someone up with your Outlook Contacts.

Still, as every good agent knows, you catch more potential defectors with honey than with vinegar and the scenes of bone-crunching are outnumbered by the ones of bone-jumping. It’s mainly done in pursuit of espionage goals, but parallels are drawn with the complications of marriage too. Is sex being used as an allegory for spying or is it the other way round? Either way, the dramatic possibilities are as boundless as the Jennings’ wedding vows, and the sense that any betrayal would be considered personal adds real power to proceedings. It’s a mark of how well it’s made that an early sex scene can be soundtracked by Phil Collins’ bombastic In The Air Tonight and still work. Just.

A second season has already been commissioned, so it’s well worth your time investing in The Americans. It’s a great show, with some excellent performances and is very sharply written, so do pay attention 007, watching it would be the patriotic thing to do.

The Americans continues on ITV this Saturday. Catch up on all the episodes by buying a season pass, here.

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