Keeping Up With ‘The Americans’

Pop culture fascination with the covert continues to crest. Under Bush besides the torture porn of ’24’, NCIS began its long run exalting ‘warfighters’ and hierarchical obediance. We endured the Bournes’ editing and celebrated a more brutal Bond.

And it continues. “Homeland” has become a ‘Starbuckian’ touchstone. “Argo” and “Zero Dark Thirty” pull crowds. Even lighter, sillier cable fare like the CW’s “Nikita” and USA’s “Burn Notice” name check espionage argot.

And Comrades, Remember The Paco Rabanne
And Comrades, Remember The Paco Rabanne

So what to make of FX’s new series, “The Americans”? Larval CIA employee Joseph Weisberg (1990-94, no overseas) launched it all. He runs with the 2010 ‘Anna Chapman Spy Ring’ sensationalism but places his ostensibly married Soviet ‘illegal’ couple in Reagan’s 1981 America. The producers add some “Californication”-esque gestures; within the pilot’s first hour the female Soviet spy fellates a hapless presidential confidante, ostentatiously wiping her mouth afterwards and is later shown raped brutally. She also asks said confidante, supra, if he liked her finger up his ass. Quelle shock!

If It’s Phil Collins, It Must Be The 80’s

But is it any good?

When credits rolled, we asked “What did we just see?” It’s all preposterous, of course, as it must be. A show survives if it entertains. Here, the team generously drops gratuitous and titillating details to provide a modicum of verisimilitude – beyond say, “Burn Notice”. Yet for all that “The Americans” likely will be a soap opera.

The Soviet husband likes American malls and wants to defect. The wife is fiercely opposed, clinging to a memory of Moscow in 1962. And their kids! Already their young boy seems to have the hots for the next door neighbor’s daughter. Her dad’s an FBI counter-intelligence agent (yes, really). Oh, and there’s a KGB general. He pops up somehow at the end in D.C. to tell the female spy he’s fighting off extremists in Moscow while defending the motherland.

The atmosphere is the show’s real star and asset. Like Miami Vice, the show wants us to notice the music, style and set decorating. The clothes accurately are post 70s muted browns and not the much later, stereotypical big hair, neon and mullets. (Watch for Members Only jackets in future eps). They’ve gone the extra mile recreating 1981 on a basic cable budget. The music from Phil Collins to Pat Benatar is true to that year’s charts. (The only bum note was using The Who’s ‘Eminence Front’ as the FX TV ad campaign, which was from 1982).

Still, atmosphere can carry only so far. A soap opera requires caricatures acting broadly. The show’s premise and conceit point the other way. And nothing suggests ambition to deconstruct the American self-image through the eyes of its Soviet protagonists. Leaving us with what, precisely?

We doubt we’ll stick around after initial novelty dissipates. Aside from name-check fan service, it feels like Oakland, no there, there. (For that matter, we’ve never been able to sit through a re-watching of the recent “Tinker, Tailor” remake; the original BBC show remains sublime). Many pulp series have overcome inauspicious pilots. Will be interesting to see if we’re given a reason to care in time.


  1. says

    I once read in The Nation that the DOD(?) was studying the effects of shows like ‘Survivor.’ ‘The Americans’ sounds totally watchable, but I allow myself to get sucked into only so many dramas. Still need to watch the final season of Breaking Bad.

    • Dr Leo Strauss says

      Saw the item about ‘Survivor’, too. Heartwarming to see priorities.

      Hear that re limited bandwidth for these serial shows. ‘Americans’ probably best enjoyed as a binge season recap rental/unauthorized YouTube upload. It’s at once ridiculous and then offers the improbably nice detail.

  2. Aldershot says

    Oh, and there’s a KGB general. He pops up somehow at the end…

    LIke the Big Head in Third Rock from the Sun?

    • Dr Leo Strauss says

      Hadn’t thought about it until now but for the pilot, a good comparison. Haven’t seen him again don’t think but he’s referred to now and then.

  3. anxiousmodernman says

    Met my first out-and-out CIA acquaintence under-30 at a bar last weekend. I’m sure I’ve come across several who didn’t want to tell me.

    Then again, I try to avoid the “what do you do” in conversations with people I just met. It’s too DC, even for me.

    • Dr Leo Strauss says

      Back in the dial up days, when modems connecting made the kwssshkeeekwooopzeep sound, watching DC people just meet and engage in the ‘do you know?’ sync was funny. And always nice to see people abstain.

      After all these pop culture ventures and the money they offer, one can only wonder what sitcoms and other merchandizing awaits.

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