Here’s a show that snuck up on people. Last season, I didn’t write about it. When I finally posted something, at the time of the Season Two premiere, I spent the first paragraph talking about how it had slipped through the cracks on the blog. Two commenters said they had it on their “one day I’ll get around to it” list. If you stepped outside the group of us who obsess enough about television to know what’s on from month to month, I imagine you’d find a lot of people who didn’t even know The Americans existed. And if you did know, it might only be for the seeming stunt casting of Keri Russell as the female lead.
Well, we were all wrong, including those of us who thought about watching it, and people like me who watched it and knew it was pretty good. Season One was a fine start, and gave hope for something better to come. In Season Two, that something better arrived, in the process placing The Americans among the top tier of current programs.
Even then, it has taken me a week to write about the season finale. This show doesn’t get much respect. I’m going to start respecting it, right here and now.
First, in my ongoing efforts to try and say something about the filmmaking in shows, The Americans looks more like a movie than your average TV series. Honestly, I’m not sure exactly what I mean by that, but between its setting during the early-80s Cold War and its clear recall of the paranoid films of the 70s, The Americans makes you remember movies, largely without nostalgia. Compare this to Mad Men, which is one of the all-time great shows and which has its own “filmmaking” merits, but which recall 1960s television more than it does movies.
The Americans is intriguing partly because it takes a fairly standard plot and turns it on its side. You have two parents, Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, who are spies, which is a secret to their kids, their neighbors, to everyone except other people working with them. The difference is, it’s the Cold War, and the parents are Russians, deep undercover as Americans. Even that doesn’t seem like such a big deal, except we in the audience tend to identify with the parents, who are the main characters and who are played by Felicity and Matthew Rhys, and even in 2014 it feels funny for those of us over a certain age to be rooting for the “wrong” side. But The Americans doesn’t take the easy route. This isn’t a case of the two leads also being the heroes, it isn’t a case of revisionist history where the Russians are the good guys. Instead, we see that both the Americans and the Russians are ruthlessly committed to the Cold War, with neither side being “right”. With historical perspective, a lot of the global politics seem a bit quaint to us … we know what will happen to the Soviet Union, we know that some of the intrigue over technology is a dead end. There are some stereotypes … the Soviet leaders seem faceless (although the operatives on the ground are quite real), America is represented by the smiling face of Ronald Reagan. But Reagan is used in an interesting way: we see him mostly from the point of view of the Russian spies, who think of him as an evil man out to destroy everything that is good.
What makes this startling, what lifts The Americans above its basics, is that we see many sides of each issue, which leads, among other things, to the aforementioned identifying with the Russian spies more often than not. You don’t need to think Reagan was evil to fall into this identification process. You just need to appreciate the perspective of the lead characters. Who happen to be Russian spies who lies, cheat, and murder in the name of The Cause.
Yet I haven’t really gotten to the core of The Americans. The creator of The Americans, Joe Weisberg, is a former CIA officer, who said, “The most interesting thing I observed during my time at the CIA was the family life of agents who served abroad with kids and spouses. … The thing people are going to care about is this couple and whether or not they make it. We already know how the Cold War ends. Nobody knows how this marriage will end. Plus, deep down I’m more interested in marriage than espionage.”
And the marriage and family life of the Jennings is as confused as it should be, if you consider the circumstances. The parents aren’t “really” married at all … they were chosen in the USSR to be a spy team. (In fairness, there is some vagueness about their actual marital status, and they at least pretend to be legitimately married.) The husband gets married to another woman who is a secretary at the FBI, in order to use her to get information. Both husband and wife regularly have sex with other people to advance The Cause. Their romantic feelings for each other were irrelevant to their being chosen for this job, and at the beginning of the series, those feelings are only just coming to the surface, although they have two kids in the pre-teen/teen age. They make halting steps towards a “real” romantic coupling, but their situation means they must always accept actions outside the specifics of their marriage.
They are both devoted to their kids, yet they are keeping a huge secret from the children. Season Two really stepped forward in this regard, as they saw what happened to a similar family and realized their children were in danger because of the work of the parents. Teenager Paige is testing out new possibilities, as teenagers will, and she has vague suspicions of the odd lives of her parents. She rebels, they fight back the way protective parents will. (Part of this process that plays almost like comedy comes when Paige hooks up with a church with slight left-wing tendencies. Elizabeth in particular is revolted by this development … how can their daughter fall victim to the opiate of the masses?)
It’s an ordinary family drama, with parents who keep some things from the kids, with kids who rebel, with neither side really understanding the other. Except Mom and Dad are Russian spies. And anyone who has had teenage kids can’t help but identify with Mom and Dad the Russian spies.
The Season Two finale sets up a potentially gripping Season Three … you won’t get spoilers here, but as with much of The Americans, the root of things lies in The Cause, while the manifestation will come in the family.
Through all of this, The Americans does a fine job with the suspense angle of all of these people acting in secret, always in danger of being found out. That suspense is built into the foundation of the series, and we are never allowed to forget it.
When I finally got around to giving a grade, I assigned an A- for the Season Two premiere. Things have only gotten better. Grade for Season Two finale: A. Grade for Season Two: A. And while I often have a pessimistic feeling about future seasons of shows, my prediction for Season Three: A. Hunt this show down; it’s well worth it.