As I reported on this blog just a month ago, The Americans on FX seems to be aiming at the niche of “guilty pleasure for people over 40,” or Mad Men for the middle-aged and nostalgic. Taking us back to the Bad Hair Year of 1980, The Americans tells the story of two Soviet spies (Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys) who have spent nearly two decades in suburban deep cover, raising children and stealing top secret information in a low-tech preview of post-yuppie multitasking.
Four episodes in, the show continues to mine the early Reagan years for non-existent threats. This is Cold War paranoia packaged for viewers who are secure in the knowledge that the two superpowers will definitely not blow each other up, and that nothing Felicity does for her Soviet masters can turn “morning in America” into a prelude to nuclear winter.
This week (or 32 years ago), Ronald Reagan is shot by John Hinckley. We now know Hinckley was trying to impress Jodie Foster (demonstrating that his aim was off both literally and metaphorically), but at the time, it is not surprising to imagine the FBI seriously entertaining the idea that this was part of a plot on the part of our eternal enemy,
Al Qaeda the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, Al Haig’s famous assertion in the aftermath of the shooting (“I am in control here”) has our favorite Soviet spies worried about a White House coup.
Since the stakes cannot be anything but low here, we have to look elsewhere for the real essence of The Americans as drama. The key, I think, is in a regular part of the show that was absent from the pilot episode: the opening credits. Part of me wishes that the producers had stayed faithful to their 1980s hyperreality and filmed a vintage opening sequence, complete with theme song and smiling close ups (you can see how this would look in a hilarious reimagining of Breaking Bad). But the actual opening credits reveal the truth about the show’s vision of the Cold War: it’s the battle of two different kinds of kitsch.
The opening sequence is based on a device that would feel clever if it were not completely beaten to death over the course of two minutes: juxtaposing American and Soviet iconography. We know who the good guys are, because they’re having much more fun: American children play the hula hoop and baseball, while Russian children harvest grain. American war memorials are replaced by Soviet war memorials, and Keri Russell’s name is projected over Vera Mukhina’s statue of the Worker and the Peasant Woman. The entire endeavor loses any sense of drama when an image of Santa Claus holding a happy American girl on his lap is obscured by the face of Karl Marx (“A specter is haunting Europe, and it knows if you’ve been naughty or nice.”)
The shift to the ridiculous is now complete: an American workout video turns into a Russian folklore ensemble, and a poor little newborn baby has a hammer and sickle superimposed over him (to be honest, I have no idea what the producers were thinking at this particular moment). Again, the images and the music are supposed to build up a sense of threat, but it’s yet another misfire. If there’s any battle that the US was obviously going to win, it was the battle of images and spectacle. Although watching The Americans makes me think we’ve been resting on our laurels.