Non-Geek TV From The Geek Perspective: The Americans

This looks patriotic!
This looks patriotic!

There’s a lot of TV shows out there, and not all of it is of the geek variety.  So, in the first of an occasional series, I hereby present one such show with more to follow.

First up, the FX spy drama The Americans.

What’s the premise?

Set in the early years of the Reagan Administration, the show deals with two spies working for the KGB posing as an American married couple.  They have two kids, run a travel agency, and on the side wear a bunch of wigs and sneak around, gathering intel, finding moles, converting double-agents, and from time-to-time killing people.

Oh, and in the pilot, they get a new next door neighbor in the form of an FBI agent who works counterintelligence.

What’s the appeal?

For one thing, believe it or not it actually isn’t much of a stretch for the show to ask the audience to sympathize with a pair of occasionally murderous KGB spies.  Today we know how the Cold War ends, but they don’t, and neither does the FBI.  Furthermore, the “illegals program” was a real thing we only found out about a couple years ago.  There really were Soviet spies posing as everyday Americans on our soil, and much of what main characters Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings do doesn’t make them “nice” or “misunderstood,” but the show doesn’t exactly make the various FBI agents and such shining beacons of morality or the Soviet officials who work in the embassy or as spies completely evil.  There’s a lot of grey going on, and part of the themes of the show is how much the Cold War is wearing on these people.  Phillip has attacks of conscience on a regular basis, especially as he poses as “Clark” and ends up marrying a hapless FBI secretary.  All the characters are treated as intelligent people who don’t stick to black-and-white morality, which makes it a bit like Game of Thrones in that sense.

Also, the show does something to turn the expected genre beats on their head.  Most shows like this, you get the married couple spies, and one would be more likely to consider defecting while the other would be a true believer.  Most times, it’s the wife/mother who considers defecting to protect the kids while her husband is the true believer.  The reverse is true on The Americans, with the true believer being hard core Elizabeth, played by former Felicity star Keri Russell.  Sometimes its subtle, too, like in the pilot when her young son is talking up the moon landing and she interjects that just getting into space is also rather impressive.

Above all, the show is a portrait of a marriage.  Phillip and Elizabeth don’t even know each others’ real Russian names, were forced together by the KGB, and only now after hiding in the States for 20 years are they starting to fall into something like love.  Russell and Matthew Rhys have good chemistry together, too.

Anything stand out?

Most shows like this (I’m looking at you, Homeland) often keep a teenage girl around who’s too smart for her own good and rather obnoxious to the fans.  The Americans managed to avoid this trap with the character of Paige Jennings, who maybe suspects something, but isn’t quite sure what.  I was rather impressed in season two when the producers figured out the best way for her to unknowingly rebel against her parents by having her find religion.  For a pair of secret Soviet atheists, this was unacceptable, especially to Elizabeth who kept finding blatantly unfair ways to punish her daughter to try and get the Jesus out of her.  The resolution to this plot line at the end of the season was…unexpected.

Also, the show had a great reoccurring character in Claudia, their original KGB handler, played by the great character actress Margo Martindale.  Geeks could possibly see the Black Widow becoming Claudia in a good 30 or 40 years on the job, someone who, despite her age and general shape, is still highly menacing in both an intellectual and, when need be, physical manner.

Plus, the show makes great use of the 80s setting, the music, the fashion (and I hate most of that stuff about the 80s), and most importantly, the history.  A season one episode in which the Jennings and their handlers react to the shooting of Ronald Reagan is a prime example.  The first thing they wonder, of course, was did one of their people do it, and how close should they get before they start assassinating other American officials.  Anyone knowing more about the history of the Cold War, particularly the “Star Wars” program, might also get some additional kicks out of the show.  One episode does feature a co-writer credit to super fan Oliver North.

Any downsides?

Moral ambiguity isn’t for every one.  The Americans seems to be emotionally neutral at times.  Even Phillip, the “nicer” of the two Jennings, does some pretty horrifying things.  In the season two premier, Phillip infiltrates a meeting with a couple Afghans, future Taliban types, at a restaurant where, after they bad mouth the Soviets sufficiently, Phillip pulls a gun and kills the two men.  These two guys may have been future terrorists…but the accidental busboy witness Phillip murders as he exits through the kitchen certainly wasn’t.  If you need someone to root for, it may be a bit hard.  You also know the series is not going to end well for a lot of these people.

The Americans isn’t quite the prestige Emmy-winner, but it is highly entertaining in a cerebral way.  Let’s say seven spy wigs out of ten.  Season three is currently running, but I won’t be able to see it until it goes into free streaming this time next year.

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