Last year on CNN’s “Reliable Sources,” host Brian Stelter asked me what one TV show I would recommend for President Donald J. Trump to watch.
“’The Americans,’” I said without having to think.
I was only half kidding.
With all the talk of Russian operatives and possible meetings with them by members of the president’s campaign team and family, I thought he should know a little about the history of such spies in the U.S. even if it was only a fictionalized, prime-time TV version. After all, everything the president thinks he knows seems to have come from TV versions of reality.
But I have loved this series since its debut on FX in 2013, and I had just binge-watched a half-dozen epsiodes the day before the question was asked. I binged again this past weekend on the final five episodes including the finale, and my separation anxiety is now through the roof as this splendid saga of a husband-and-wife team of Russian spies living in suburban Washington during the Reagan ‘80s ends its six-year run May 30.
(Don’t worry, there are no spoilers here. There’s an embargo on the finale, and I respect it.)
The series has enjoyed a cultural relevance the last few years that I never imagined. When I first heard about the project going into production in 2012, I thought of it as a historical drama with some of the news releases sounding like FX was incorrectly conflating the true Cold War of the 1950s with the Russian preoccupation with President Ronald Reagan’s administration in the ’80s.
But the pilot won me over to its vision of U.S.-Soviet relations in the Reagan era. And it quickly became apparent that the producers were onto something larger in the culture that I was missing.
By 2014 and ‘15, I was writing trend stories about a rise in the number of TV series featuring spies or covert operatives. As I saw it at the time, the fascination stemmed from our anxieties about everything from NSA spying to millennials who grew up in a digital media “echo chamber of rumors, trivia, phonies posing as experts and false information that is not properly corrected, clarified or retracted.”
But if millennials had the collective jitters about that addled information ecosystem in 2015, we are all having a nervous breakdown over it today with a president who calls our most trusted sources of information like The New York Times fake news while he celebrates politically weaponized media platforms like Fox News as journalism.
I certainly never imagined us having so much Russia on the brain as we do today with media chronicling every move by a special counsel investigating the president’s campaign for possible collusion with Russians during the 2016 election — even as the president repeatedly tweets “NO COLLUSION.”
Resonance doesn’t start to describe how profoundly this series connects with the informational climate and cultural heartbeat of American life today.
But as much as I love talking about TV as culture, it would be wrong not to also talk about “The Americans” as entertainment. A prime-time drama has to be engaging to the point of addictive if it hopes to have the kind of run “The Americans” did. It has to make us care about its characters and it so enmesh us in its narratives that they bounce around in our heads as we go about our daily lives away from the screen.
Part of that involves us seeing ourselves in the characters. It’s not just a matter of identifying with them, but rather of getting so caught up in their lives that as we watch we see some of our own anxieties, issues, fears, nightmares and struggles playing out symbolically on the screen.
On one level, that might be the greatest accomplishment of the series: getting millions of Americans in the 2018 to identify with a couple of Russian spies in a drama set in the 1980s.
There are at two parts to the success here: the focus of the storytelling and the acting.
For all the drama and intrigue of their espionage activities, the center of the series has always been the marriage of Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell).
“It all goes back to the marriage,” Joe Weisberg, creator of the series, told Variety. “It started out as a show about a marriage and it stayed that all along. It’s about a couple in a very odd and unusual situation. Despite that, everything they experience and felt and went through we always thought could be relatable to everyone. We talk a lot about politics and history … [but] what makes you feel in this show is that marriage.”
“The Americans” talks far more eloquently about politics and history than I imagined it would when it started. It explores some of the same big themes about individuals being betrayed by ideologies and institutions that John le Carré does in his novels or David Simon does in his TV productions.
But the story of the marriage of these two Russian “illegals” living, working and raising children in America is the narrative that cements the emotional bond with viewers. This last season has been especially rich in that regard with Philip, no longer such a true believer, having backed away from spying, while Elizabeth is still gung-ho and carrying an even bigger load.
There are scenes where Elizabeth and Philip are under such stress from their jobs that all they can do at the end of the day is try to buck each other up.
My column on the return of the series for Season 3
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Undergirding that meditation on the day-to-day reality of marriage is the love story of these two people socialized and trained to a life of deception, lies and warfare from their teenage years finding trust and some sense of safe harbor with each other in an alien land. That narrative thread redeems much of the darkness in their lives.
And while it is impossible to have great characters without great writing, you also need great acting. Russell and Rhys consistently delivered that.
I had long been a fan of Russell’s, and when the series started I thought of her as being major-league as a dramatic actress, while I put Rhys at the Double- or Triple A level. I figured one top actor was enough, and that she could make up for any of his deficiencies.
But Rhys has been the big surprise. He learned to play under and around the power and force of Russell’s performance as the alpha spy in the family. He has used nuance and subtlety in his performance to take viewers inside some of the deeper shadows and insecurities of Philip’s psyche. In some ways, Rhys has given us more of Philip’s inner life than Russell has of Elizabeth’s.
And let’s not forget the outstanding supporting performances over the years, particularly by Frank Langella and Margo Martindale as Russian handlers sent from Moscow to direct and support the activities of Philip and Elizabeth. Their scenes with Russell were about as good as TV drama ever gets.
The scenes between Noah Emmerich, as FBI agent Stan Beeman, and Rhys were exceptional as well. Emmerich delivered a superb depiction of American masculinity during a time of transition and some confusion for men in the ‘80s.
I am really going to miss this series — even the some of the, uh, questionable disguises the two donned. It is one of only two long-running TV dramas in recent years of which I have seen every episode. (The other is “Homeland.”)
I don’t know if I am glad or sad that American life has so come to imitate the art of this series.
Good for “The Americans” to have so presciently anticipated a cultural shift and so engagingly explored it. But bad for America to have an election process so soiled by Russian meddling and a president unwilling to even acknowledge that fact, let alone mobilize the forces to try and make sure it never happens again.