You should be watching “The Americans” (2013)

18 March 2013

I woke up this morning to another thin layer of snow and ice outside — how appropriate for watching The Americans, a terrific new series about the 1980s Cold War with the Soviet Union. It’s so refreshing when TV gets it right.

How exactly does this show get it right? Let me count the ways.

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1. An awesome, unexpected storyline. Rather than, say, yet another attempt to ride the wake of Mad Men, this one takes you by surprise: it’s a story about two KGB agents who have been embedded in American society for some 15 years, appearing as utterly normal Americans to everyone around them.

Is it a takeoff on Homeland? Only insofar as it places you into the mindset of people who want to do harm to the United States. To a large extent it goes further — our protagonists are the KGB agents, and the creepy antagonist is the FBI guy who hunts them. Wow.

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2. Two terrific leads, and a terrific supporting cast. And while we’re on the topic, let’s sing the praises of finding actors who are this good yet haven’t been on our radar for a while. Keri Russell is a far cry from her America’s sweetheart roles (Felicity, Waitress) as a clenched-jaw, steely-eyed ideologue whose dedication to her motherland has never wavered. And the Welsh actor Matthew Rhys does such interesting work here as the more ambivalent of the couple — she calls him “fragile” in one interesting scene — but also capable of a huge range of strategy, violence, uncertainty. These two people are great to watch as they live out their roles as ordinary American travel agents … most of the time, anyway.

This show wouldn’t work if Russell and Rhys weren’t such compelling, three-dimensional actors. Plus there’s the spycraft, which is just fun.

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3. An interesting relationship. No family could look less like an advertisement for heteronormativity, yet we learn immediately that Phillip and Elizabeth’s marriage is a fiction: they were paired up for this work by higher-ups and Elizabeth, at least, has never considered this to be anything more than a convenience. Yet with a 13-yr-old daughter and younger son who know nothing about their parents’ secret lives, this couple also has a lot to lose.

And yet when events transpire in the series pilot, we see the possibility that this show might turn into an interesting love story — perhaps one of the more counter-intuitive love stories we’ve seen. The Americans is a story about a marriage in mid-life, except backwards.

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4. Set in 1981, this show reminds you of those early Reagan vs. Evil Empire days while also showing it to you through the looking glass. How might that America have appeared from the perspectives of Soviets? Best of all is the episode that circles around that day in March 1981 when John Hinckley, Jr. attempted to assassinate the president — I won’t tell you more, because it’s too delicious to ruin.

Can I also say that it’s more fun without the cell phones and crime scene investigators? There: I said it.

5. It’s a show about politics. Real politics, as they appeared during the early 80s. It reminds you that the Cold War made politics interesting — and makes you wonder if all our culture wars have resulted from missing our old battles with the Soviets.

Why not spend your own cold day catching up with this great new bit of brain candy? It’s showing on the basic-cable channel FX, and all 6 episodes to date are streaming on Hulu. (There will be 13 episodes altogether this season, and the series has also been renewed for a second season, so there’s much more to look forward to.)

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16 Responses to “You should be watching “The Americans” (2013)”

  1. Servetus Says:

    My 20th c. diplomatic historian friends are all crazy about this … and now you? Seriously, you make it sound good.

    • Didion Says:

      Really?!? Being quite far from such a specialist myself, I’m glad to hear that it’s not just people like me who find this compelling. I’m really surprisingly glad to hear it’s plausible to them.

      But I think it’s just a fucking good show. And it could have been horrible with two different leads — these two are excellent, consistently watchable.

      A few episodes in a new character appears, played by veteran character actress Margo Martindale, an actress whom I’d watch if she were merely reading the phone book. Damn, this woman is good — and what good roles she lands. (Also, her accent, which feels like honey on biscuits.)
      Margo Martindale


  2. Robert and I will have to watch this series. I am very curious to see a perspective other than the American view of the Cold War. I wonder how our St. Ronnie is depicted.

    • Didion Says:

      He’s mostly a non-entity, to be honest. You’ll be more interested in the portrayal of early 80s America. The most implausible parts of the show concern flashbacks to the Soviet Union — used primarily to flesh out the backstories of our protagonists.

  3. Becky Says:

    I will have to watch this on your recommendation. I thought it would be silly. Sadly, I am a lot older than any of you. I was raised in the 50’s in the duck and cover years. I might be able to really get into this.

    • Didion Says:

      You’ll be a perfect viewer since you’ll remember well how weary we all were of the Cold War by 1981. I was still too young and too freaked out by the idea of nuclear war to have any insights.

      Plus, I can hardly wait to see Russell and Rhys do more acting. They’re so good.


  4. I love The Americans, and was so happy to hear it had been picked up! Though the naked woman in the last episode was totally ridiculous – sweeps week maybe? Hope they don’t continue with the gratuitous female nudity.

    • Didion Says:

      Here here. There are a couple of other gender/sex issues I’d like to bitch about too. But overall it’s so watchable that I don’t want to steer people away from it.

      You haven’t written about this show yet, have you? I just did a quick search of your site and didn’t find it — and I thought I would have seen it earlier if so.


      • No I haven’t, my blog is more personal and not really about media, even though I’m a film buff 🙂 I was very disappointed to see that The Americans did the same again this week; That scene with the prostitute and the FBI agent. I had a long discussion with my boyfriend on how they could have filmed that differently! I don’t object to sex and/or nudity, but obviously to how movies and shows are filmed (=constantly sexualizing naked female bodies while letting men just be “human” while naked = sleeping, walking. The Americans has done that twice in a row now.)

  5. FD Says:

    For the first time in ages, I get a chance to say I agree with you. The Americans has an original twist premise in a world of bootleg digital copies. Like the long-running classic series, The Fugutive, The Americans works well as individual weekly episodes and as an ongoing drama. The lead characters are complex and interesting and pose considerable menace to each other as well as to their Soviet and American spy foes. Unlike most other TV shows, the violence on The Americans is surprising, well-integrated and realistic. Amidst the rapidly growing crowd of media tough girls, Keri Russel looks the most lethal, without ever being unlikable.


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