Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Americans

Ok so not everyone on The Americans
looks like a "real person"
The FX show, The Americans, is a bit like a classic "false flag" operation. On the surface it's a TV show about FBI men looking for dangerous Soviet sleeper agents who are out to harm America during the Reagan years. For all I know that's how the show was pitched, but it's not really about that at all; in The Americans it's the Soviet sleeper agents who are the good guys and the FBI men looking for them who are the villains. I like this idea as it's a reversal of a longstanding American TV tradition: I mean we've had mafiosos as good guys, meth manufacturing chemistry teachers as goodies, but until Angelina Jolie's Salt Soviet agents have always been baddies, often the baddest of the bad (see for example the beyond dreadful Russkies in Indiana Jones IV). And yes although the Russians in The Americans are often ruthless operatives (and definitely pathological) they are, at bottom, men and women of honour out to do their best for their country and their way of life. The older Soviet agents in The Americans in particular are all Red Army veterans who heroically fought in the "Great War of The Motherland" against the Nazis. The FBI agents on their trail aren't nearly so interesting or fundamentally decent. They're rather dull functionaries who are working for a Reagan administration which at the time show begins is still supporting the Khmer Rouge, Saddam Hussein and Pinochet's Chile (and which goes onto to invent the Taliban and cook up the treasonous and disgraceful Iran Contra scheme).
But please don't get the idea that The Americans is a show about black and white characters. It really isn't. It's more complex than that and even the minor players in The Americans get to go against type, to reflect on their actions, to make mistakes and to act, well, like real people. The Americans is as nuanced and as carefully written as Homeland with the added benefit that nobody is as bug eyed crazy as Carrie, as bizarrely beautiful as Brodie's wife or as annoying as Brodie's daughter. And now that I'm thinking of the casting, I love the fact that the actors in The Americans are low key and (for the most part) look like real people. Real people in real situations dealing with real problems and although the show has a lot of action and even (in the season finale) a car chase its essentially a character driven programme that relies on suspense not action to keep the viewer gripped. If Showtime's Emmy award winning Homeland is the, uh, Cadillac of sleeper agent shows on US television, FX's The Americans is the stolid Subaru Outback and anyone who's driven both will know which is the better one to have in your garage/DVD player on a rainy day.