At first glance, The Americans, the hot new TV show on FX, might seem an odd fit for us boomer types. It’s heavy on gritty action (also known as violence) and almost-explicit sex. It’s often compared with that “other” spy story with a young cast, Homeland. And speaking of young casts, star Keri Russell is young enough to have been discovered in that crucible for 1990s stars The New Mickey Mouse Club (though, like classmate Ryan Gosling, she’s dazzled since). Might the show not be for us?
Then you hear the soundtrack, from Fleetwood Mac to Peter Gabriel to the Cure. You notice the abnormally large cars and the clothes, dreamed up by Hollywood designer Jenny Gering from what she saw in her mom’s closet. Confirmation comes with news flashes featuring not just Ronald Reagan but such non-favorites as Caspar Weinberger and the Missile Defense Initiative, also known as Star Wars. Yes, you’re back in the ’80s, but in a scary way, surrounded by people who really think the world might be about to end.
The Americans, produced by former C.IA case officer Joseph Weisberg, takes off from recent news—the 2010 exposure of 15 “ordinary Americans” as long-term deep-cover Soviet agents—and uses it to explore loyalty, fidelity, and truth. It does so by pairing its spy story with an unexpectedly rich portrait of a marriage, albeit the “fake” one (with real children. produced for cover) between spies paired by the KGB, played by Russell and Matthew Rhys.
As New Yorker critic Emily Nussbaum notes:
Some of this is a struggle over identity: what does loyalty mean in a marriage in which both people are seducers, manipulating ‘assets’ with sex? What kind of parents raise children in a culture they regard as the enemy?. . . In one sense, this is the story of a midlife crisis (like HBO’s Tell Me You Love Me on amphetamines).
Then there are the FBI/CIA counterintelligence agents racing to counter the KGB, including one played by an actor who’s a flashback from my childhood, Richard Thomas (whom many of us first met as John-Boy Walton in The Waltons). All the characters’ extremes are vividly colored by an era many of us try to forget: when the ’60s felt like a recent dream/nightmare and nuclear war felt imminent in America. None of which stops The Americans from being a hoot to watch, especially since, as Alyssa Rosenberg pointed out for Slate, “The Americans is the rare television show that has a sense of what sex actually looks and feels like.”
The show even passes the Bechdel Test (if barely), with crackerjack dialogue between Russell and other women, whether it’s the wife of a murdered asset or her own KGB handler (played by Emmy-winning WVFC favorite Margo Martindale). It remains to be seen whether similarly strong interactions will occur among women for the show’s other smartly written women spies: FBI staffer Martha Hanson, played by Alison Wright of The Nanny Diaries, or Nina, the FBI’s asset in KGB headquarters, played by the stunning Annet Mahendru.
The show airs tonight at 10 p.m., as it does every Wednesday, and has just been renewed for another season. We know who won the Cold War, but we don’t know what will be the outcome of The Americans’ web of loyalties. If you watch the show, you might even question a few of your own.
In this clip from the episode “Mutually Assured Destruction,” women spies try to tell hard truths.