For my last post, I decided to talk about The Americans, one of my favorite shows currently airing on television. The show follows Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, two undercover Soviet spies who live in Fall Church, VA (not only is that in NOVA, but it’s also probably the most NOVA place in NOVA… if that makes sense… most folks are super wealthy, highly educated, and work in DC). The couple have two kids, Henry (who seems to disappear for long periods of time) and Paige, work as travel agents, live next to an FBI Agent (who they befriend), and sometimes have to kill a person or two. The show provides an unique perspective on the Cold War. America is “the bad guy” and the viewer gets to see some of the more shady things that we did. The show is really great about being morally complex. It lets its characters live in a sort of grey area, and wrestles with the consequences of being loyalty to one’s country.
Being a spy has never seemed so enticing yet utterly terrible.
In addition to being a drama about family, the show is known for its wigs and its spot on 80s references.
Episodes hinge on things like The Day After or Ronald Regan’s “Evil Empire” Speech. The fact that the the early 80s was an especially tense period in the Cold War is not lost on the writers of the show, and they really bring out that tension. Things were so tense that stuff like this was happening. Russians basically thought the US was just making stuff up to rile their citizens against the Soviets. The anecdote about a person showing up to the Soviet Embassy looking to sell “a collection of the very latest CIA inventions for killing people” to the Russians would be funny if it wasn’t so indicative of the hysteria of the period.
There is even some allusion to Soviet issues in the 80s. Pretty early on in the series it is revealed that Phillip Jennings had a son with another woman. That son ends up being deployed in Afghanistan, so Phillip is highly invested in what goes on there. The show really shines with all of its US 80s pop culture references, though. They reference everything from Eddie Murphy on SNL, to Tootsie, to the Redskins losing to the Raiders in SuperBowl XVIII. This is in addition to having a very 80s soundtrack (Fleetwood Mac, Peter Gabriel, Roxy Music and -of course- In the Air Tonight and Under Pressure, by Phil Collins and Bowie/Queen respectively). The show is such a well put together period piece (and not nearly as pretentious as Mad Men) that makes you feel as if you have been taken back to the 80s. The movies, the settings, and the paranoia are all there.
This post earned a “red star” award from the editorial team
May 1, 2017 at 3:33 pm
This is a very well written overview of ‘The Americans’, great work! I haven’t started the show yet, but after reading this post I definitely will. I really appreciate that you didn’t give away the entire plot of the show, yet provided enough info to keep me reading. That’s really neat that the writers/director managed to stay true to the times concerning Soviet history. It’s great that both sides’ respective histories are portrayed closely to the reality of the 1980s. I tend to think of the Cold War era as the 1960s in terms of my ‘big picture’ perspective, so your references to pop culture in the 1980s gave me better insight into the later Cold War years.
May 1, 2017 at 3:48 pm
I agree – I’ve never seen the show but I’m going to watch it this summer after reading your post. It seems really realistic to the times which I think is necessary for a plot like this. Great post!
May 2, 2017 at 1:37 am
Thank you so much for writing about The Americans, Michael! I agree, for all of the spot-on contextual richness of the 80s sets and references, the real power of the series comes from the moral complexities that permeate the motivations and actions of the main characters. And it isn’t nearly as pretentious as Mad Men. I also thoroughly enjoy the fact that Stan is so hapless — living across the street from the Jennings and always a couple steps behind.
Very interesting article from the CD as well.
May 2, 2017 at 3:08 am
Cool rundown of the series. It’s a show I’ve always seen as interesting but never really took the time to check it out. I think people are always up for a bit of nostalgia. Was part of the reason why “Stranger Things” really took off last year. It’s always refreshing to see producers of a show put in the time and effort to make things really immersive for the audience.
May 2, 2017 at 5:31 am
I really appreciate that you wrote about the Americans! It’s one of my favorite shows on TV, and I’ve thought that it’s really cool to see the events in that show correspond to events that we’re studying (especially Oleg’s work with Blat). I think you touched on a really important point about the hysteria that was going on at the time, especially Philip and Elizabeth’s reactions to The Day After. Great post!
May 2, 2017 at 1:26 pm
Great Post! I like how you thoroughly detailed the show without spoiling much of the plot. Was intrigued to learn of all the 80’s references in the show. Will definitely need to check this show out over the summer.
May 2, 2017 at 1:43 pm
Great Post! It is really interesting to not only see how the Cold War happened, but how it affected people on an individual level. I also think it is interesting to see the stakes that are at play in this microcosm of the Cold War.