TV Review: The Americans (2013)

ITV decided against purchasing the rights for the third season of hit US Cold War drama The Americans earlier this year and what a terrible decision that was. The show has just been renewed for a fourth season stateside and now is a great time to catch up on the first 39 episodes, some way or another.

Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) are an American couple in 1980s Washington DC. They have two children, Paige and Henry, and they live opposite FBI agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich). The thing is, Philip and Elizabeth are in fact Mikhail and Nadezhda, KGB spies posing as American travel agents. They have been trained to talk like Americans, to look like Americans, to be Americans but all the while they secure information for the Soviet Union, doing whatever is necessary to get that information; they are quite well trained in that too.

At times, watching this training being put to use can make for uncomfortable viewing; when you kill, you need to dispose of the bodies after all unless you want your FBI neighbour/friend to become suspicious. This is definitely an adult’s show and sex and violence play a big part. Promiscuity and sham marriages are key in fighting the fight for mother Russia it would seem and so is a vast array of wigs. The disguises have improved throughout the season but there is something still a little Clark Kentish about how easy it appears to deceive people with a simple toupee and a pair of glasses. Although the writers clearly know this, acknowledging so by actually naming Philip’s primary disguise “Clark”, an appreciated in-joke.

Elizabeth's wig of the week from a season two episode

Elizabeth’s wig of the week from a season two episode

All this wig-play is a good example of the tone of the show though. For all the darkness of The Americans, it is notoriously fun to watch: at times an action thriller with some classic spy games going on, at others a family-centric kitchen-sink drama with all the games that one would expect to happen there too, all immensely engaging stuff and we forgive some of the less believable instances as a result. But no matter how “normal” some of the family scenes become, there is the bubbling knowledge that almost everything we see is a lie. It can only be a matter of time before somebody, somewhere, maybe even Agent Beeman, realises how often he is being lied to. The Jennings are exceptionally well trained at deception but they are increasingly showing their humanity, particularly when it comes to their children’s welfare. One could take an educated guess that this will probably eventually be their undoing but until then it is fascinating to witness the extent to which they are willing to ruin lives for their greater good.

It is also nice to see some cinematically intelligent production being applied to this kind of television too. The most recent episodes, showcasing an increasingly turbulent relationship between teenager Paige and her parents, started to be littered with divisive imagery, for example. It is simple but effective visual aesthetics and consistent throughout. As is the nostalgic 1980s soundtrack, featuring Fleetwood Mac, Phil Collins, The Cure to name a few and even the majority of one episode centred on synth-pop duo Yazoo. The music reiterates to us that we are in the 80s, as do the clothes and the hair-dos and the cars and the technology, especially the technology; perhaps not as high-budgeted and obvious as something like Mad Men but nonetheless it works.

Whilst the show would not work without the bells and whistles of set-design and camerawork, were it not for the excellent writing to bind it all together, it would soon become dull. The team has no easy task on its hands either, having to blend stylish action set-pieces and spy work seamlessly with family quarrels. Not that dissimilar to what the Jennings have to try to achieve in their lives. They are a talented bunch though to have not only achieved this but done so whilst also including a touch of humour. There are no jokes and this is far from a comedy but there is a touch, just a flicker of lightness to some dialogue here and there, particularly with Clark’s long-standing partner and FBI secretary Martha Hanson (played brilliantly by Alison Wright), and the whole show feels much more satisfying as a result.

When all is said and done, it is viewing figures that will determine The Americans future though. Renewal for a fourth season is positive but it has a decreasing audience in the US and ITV’s lack of support will not help its British appeal. It is a fascinating concept, well executed and thoroughly enjoyable and it has critics’ praise from all over. However, if the viewership does not increase quickly, I fear the show’s life may be cut short and without a fitting end – like so many of Philip and Elizabeth’s unfortunate victims have already. So, now I don’t know how else to say this: Idti! Smotret’ The Americans! (…that is to say “Go! Watch The Americans!”).

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