Lila’s TV Series Review: “The Americans” – Excellent!

Posted on March 14, 2013

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“The Americans” is an exceptionally well-written and well-presented Cold War drama.

In the wasteland of “reality” TV and cheap-laughs sitcoms, it’s hard to find entertainment for actual thinking people.  Even those shows which purport to take a serious look at, say, history, forensics, or nature are so dumbed-down, simplistic and repetitive as to drive me back to the printed word.  I begin to wonder why we bother with television at all.

But then, something comes along that reminds me that yes, it is possible to have an entertaining TV series that is actually well-conceived, well-executed, and enjoyable for people with a measurable IQ.  FX Network’s “The Americans” is just such an example.

Set in the Cold War era of the early 1980s, the series follows two KGB deep-cover agents as they ply their spy trade while masquerading as an ordinary suburban couple.  In real-life KGB terms, this pair of agents would be known as “illegal residents,” the analogue to the CIA’s “nonofficial cover” operatives.  Such agents operated outside the purview of the Embassy and had no diplomatic immunity if caught.  The lives they led, the jobs they held, were quite real, but their “legends” – their cover identity – was not.  Our spy couple’s legend is Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings, travel agents.  By the time we drop in to the show, they have been in the US for years and have two all-American children who have no idea who their parents really are or what they do outside of the travel-agency business.

Our All-American suburban deep-cover KGB couple. Photo credit: NY Times.

A premise like this offers great opportunity to really screw things up, but FX presents a pretty realistic depiction of just how complicated such a life could be.   The characters and plot lines are multidimensional.  From the personal complications of what was essentially a KGB-arranged marriage, to occasional thoughts of defection, to worries about their children, to their constant vigilance against FBI counterintelligence agents – those factors are quite real and yet, not often explored in the spy genre, whether in print or on screen.

Methods of communication, the types of missions the characters are given, and the tradecraft they use to carry them out, are also largely based on true Cold War-era spy techniques.  Again, unlike characters in the typical shoot-em-up, wild-car-chase spy genre, these agents actually have to worry about counterintelligence and law enforcement.  They have to be careful.  When they receive orders to accomplish the seemingly impossible, they must comply, but like real people, they worry the entire time, and they are afraid, angry, and even desperate when things go wrong.

It’s not a show for the faint of heart.  There are assassinations, innocent victims, and not-so-innocent ones.  There are ugly scenes, and poignant ones.  But despite the fact that my own Dad was a Cold Warrior himself – or maybe because he was – I can’t help but root for the main characters.  The writing, the production values, the cast are all top-notch.  Real history intrudes appropriately into the plot lines.  Even the Russian language is spoken correctly.  I will be following this series for some time to come!

“The Americans,” FX Network, Wednesdays at 10:00 PM (9:00 PM Central).

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