The Americans will have you rooting for the bad spies
‘The Americans’ is a Cold War spy thriller with modern complexity, with all the drama, moral confusion, and fun that entails.
It’s been a while since the Cold War ended, since the days when the Russians were the evil monolithic shadow of evil and the US was the only pure bastion of purity and truth. Or so it seemed. Enough time has passed that maybe we can realize that perhaps it wasn’t so simple. Maybe we are all just … people. People with connections to family and country, more alike than dissimilar.
In The Americans, the fascinating new show on the FX Network debuting this week on Wednesday (10 PM EST), we follow two Russian spies hiding in plain sight. Set in the early 1980s in the Washington DC suburbs (always a point in a show’s favor, because I’m biased about locations I’m familiar with), these two secret agents, under the assumed names of Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Phil Jennings (Matthew Rhys), must live like a typical American family. They only speak English — even to each other — never talk about their lives before, and pretend to be married; but they also have two classic American kids, a young boy and a teen girl. It’s almost too obvious as an American family archetype which, of course, is the entire point. Each week, a new spy assignment or complication must be dealt with. But instead of just obviously evil people, sometimes they must hurt innocent or decent Americans to complete the job. So it’s… not simple.
The show starts with classic spy intrigue and moral dilemmas, made more complicated by the evolving feelings of the two leads. Does Phil care about Elizabeth more like a real husband or just as a very long job? Do they want different things for the children that they love (should go without saying, these two aren’t monsters)? Phil may be warming a bit to the American lifestyle, while Elizabeth hates the country and legitimately fears that Reagan will destroy her homeland. When her kids talk politics (even with their limited understanding of it), she tries to subtly push her ideas on them. Only two episodes have been screened for critics so far, but I loved them both increasingly to the point at the end of the second episode I was speechless by how much it had affected me. But no spoilers! Not until it airs anyway
The FX Network has its share of brilliant (Louie, Archer), pretty good (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, The League), and awful (Anger Management), although those are all comedies, now that I think about it. I’ve never really gotten into their dramatic shows (Nip/Tuck was a guilty pleasure), but this is most certainly something to watch. The two leads are just fantastic, and when you consider the ridiculous layers of “identity” built into a show about people pretending to be other people and hiding things from each other and nosy FBI neighbors (which is the only thing I thought was a bit silly), it is even more impressive.
Things may change as the show continues, but right now it works. The reason is that these two spies are not terrible, but conflicted, dedicated, highly competent people that can connect with the audience. There are certainly numerous parallels from the Cold War era to the modern one, but the show doesn’t get too obvious with it. Instead, it gives excitement and tension, a bit of a action, and high class drama where no one is a Bond villain.