Before Mr Robot came along and sucked up all the buzz, deservedly so it’s great, every critic on the face of the planet was hammering their keyboards about how great The Americans is. Now before I give into that completely valid temptation let’s talk about my Family Guy epiphany. No this is not a case of Americans’-like deception or sleight of hand, or indeed me trying to bait your attention to just tell you that Family Guy is still great (it’s not, and will never be again).
Family Guy, through a throwaway line about what Peter Griffin considers his favourite period film, changed the way I thought about period drama’s as a whole. Peter’s favourite period film was the George Clooney directed Good Night and Good Luck, and that was the clincher. Before, when I heard something described as a period drama I imagined something like a Charles Dickens’, or Jane Austen adaptation, costume dramas basically. Family Guy showed me that period dramas are now more concerned with the history of the 20th century, rather than the 19th which is closer to historical drama these days. This opened me up to excellent shows like Mad Men, Peaky Blinders, the underrated Halt and Catch Fire, and most importantly The Americans. Thanks Family Guy, you over the hill behemoth.
The Americans has a distinctly simple, even tropey set up. Two Soviet spies, living in the Reagan era of the early eighties, are passing as a married American couple, along with their two children (born in America and blissfully ignorant to their parents true identities), and their mission is to basically do lots of spying, killing, and all round espionage that the Motherland needs them to do. The spanner in the works is that the couple’s new next door neighbour is an FBI agent tasked with finding Soviet spies on American soil. So far, so spy show, but what The Americans deftly achieves is the balance between the action with global consequences, and the dynamic of a couple posing as the American dream. It’s this dynamic that provides much of the show’s conflict.
The family are the Jennings, Elizabeth (Keri Russell), and Philip (Matthew Rhys), two KGB agents who were brought together to pose as a married couple, and they had to go all in. The family set up seems ideal from an outsider perspective, but these two have no say in their circumstances. Much like dramas that deal with overarching bureaucracy, Elizabeth, and Philip’s lives are not their own. Their patriotism, and training has produced this family unit, which at the start of the show seems hollow, with the drama coming as they slowly fill it in. It’s no exaggeration to say that Keri Russel, and Matthew Rhys may be the best dramatic performers on television, something that should finally be rewarded at this year’s Emmy’s. Russell is the true believer, a fiercely skilled agent who can make the hard choices in the field a lot easier than her husband. It’s her home life that she can’t seem to handle. Being surrounded by all of the capitalist perks America represents, an environment that is all her children know, only enhances her loyalty to her cause. Philip, on the other hand, is more comfortable with his surrounding s than his wife: frequently commenting that some things are easier here.
On the other side we have Stan Beeman, the Jennings FBI agent neighbour, played by Noah Emmerich in a career best performance. Stan has been undercover and estranged from his family, with his new post at the FBI hopefully providing a way to integrate himself back into his wife and son’s lives. Stan is the flipside of the Jennings: another company man, and patriot only his job has destroyed a real chance at his ideal family, whereas Elizabeth, and Philip’s perfect façade is enforced by theirs.
Created by Joe Weisberg, himself a former CIA officer, The Americans really knows what it’s doing when it comes to covert operations. Each episode has that neat balance of family drama, and espionage, but the espionage is thrilling: the first episode begins with a kidnapping operation sound tracked by Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk, and it only gets cooler from there. The show uses its eighties setting for the usual period drama parallels with now: America is always fighting, or spying on someone etc., but much of the spy thrills come from it retro format. Instead of cell phone tracing, computer encryptions, or any modern Jason Bourne nonsense, The Americans show us all this technology in its infancy: dead drops, large listening devices that have to be placed in clocks, encoded phone signals, noted character actress Margo Martindale as the Jennings’s handler, and good old fashioned sex.
That’s right, sex, because that’s a spy’s most deadly weapon. Both Elizabeth, and Philip conduct much of their work between the sheets, a place of vulnerability for their targets, or allies they need to tempt into joining their cause. Yet another hole in the family façade, but both of the Jennings, on the surface at least, accept these sacrifices as part of their spouses skill set.
Now in its fourth season The Americans, with its constantly growing critical reputation, has become one of the most exciting, original, and engrossing shows on television. With great performances, intricate plotting that never becomes too dense, and the best eighties soundtrack (The Cure, Phil Collins, Echo and the Bunnymen, and that’s just season one), The Americans is a must watch for fans of prestige television. This show needs you, will you answer the call?