The Americans is an unusual type of period drama. It takes place c.1980, a time that may seem too close to now to be ‘historical’. But 35 years is a lifetime ago and The Americans is an engrossing Cold War drama that follows a pair of Russian spies embedded in Washington DC at the start of Reagan’s reign. He may be about to (arguably) take out the ‘Evil Empire’ but no one knew it at the time.
The CIA is funding the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan (thereby turning them into Al Qaeda) and the KGB is tasked to stop them. Who do you back? There are no cell-phones or internet, computers are rudimentary and wigs, alcohol and sex are as important as guns. Like a lot of American drama, it has family at its core albeit a marriage where the couple put on disguises to get close to targets, have sex with them, manipulate/blackmail and/or kill them. They then go home to look after their oblivious teenage children (who become less clueless as the story develops).
This may seem too unreal to take, but the conceit works. This is down to very good acting and storytelling that doesn’t play it for big drama or simple laugh-at-the-‘80s-clothes/hair yuks. It is restrained and dark, shot in a beautiful palette of browns and muted colours that somehow suggests the era while keeping a contemporary coolness. The fact that it is created and produced by an ex-CIA officer probably helps, too.
Adding to the drama, their neighbour is an FBI agent. But instead of the obvious tension this could create, it is played more like the Walter/Hank Breaking Bad dynamic where keeping enemies close is an opportunity to exploit them. Do you want the Ruskies to triumph? Well, no, they can’t… but you don’t want Stan the FBI guy to win or be humiliated, either. And by series three the KGB are trying to take down the racist South African regime that Reagan and Thatcher supports. Um…
One of my favourite aspects is the Russian embassy controlling the spies. These parts are in Russian with English subtitles, and it’s a treat to listen to. The actors are so stylish and no one trusts anyone. For good reason. A gulag in Siberia is hanging over all their heads. Nina, the young manipulated-by-both-sides double agent, is outstandingly; hard and heart-breaking. (As a counter-point, it’s good to see Richard ‘John-Boy Walton’ Thomas as the head of the FBI… but his strength seems to be in marching from A to B barking orders).
With the third series it has really developed into something special. There are some outstanding scenes. It’s one thing seducing the hapless secretary of the FBI boss chasing you. It’s something else to be told to seduce and smoke pot with the wayward 15 year-old daughter of a CIA operative (especially when you have a daughter the same age). The moral complexities are delicious. There are no laughs, which is often a negative for me, but the conflicted and twisted beauty of the story has the series win awards for writing, best drama series and acting.
For those used to traditional Tudor/Victorian/Regency historical ‘frock’ drama, this may not suit. But if you like tight, gripping storytelling and tasteful period recreation (as I do) The Americans is a must. I can’t wait for the next series.