This week, FX (“The Channel That Wishes It Were HBO”) introduced “The Americans,” a drama about KGB spies in deep cover in the DC suburbs at the dawn of the Reagan Era. The premise (that communists could be hiding in the A-frame next door) should be powerful, but it faces the same problem that challenges the show’s undercover leads: it feels rather domesticated.
On the face of things, “The Americans” should be pressing all sorts of buttons in the American psyche: crypto-communists! danger in the suburbs! our neighbors hate our freedoms! Moreover, since the Soviet agents and our main point-of-view characters, the show is implicitly asking us to root for the KGB. Why isn’t Fox News all over this?
Part of the show’s inability to create controversy rests with the leads. No network wants to bet the farm on complete unknowns, and Hollywood is pathologically averse to casting heroes who aren’t ridiculously beautiful, so the audience is treated to Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys as the spies in question. To millennials (and older channel-flippers), Keri Russell will always be Felicity, the girl who gave up her plans to matriculate at Stanford in order to follow her heart to the “University of New York” (for which NYU’s Admissions Office will always be grateful). This makes Russell something of an unlikely spy, which is perhaps the point. And the odd casting does make a kind of WB/CW sense: can we really trust someone who spent four years waffling between Ben and Noel? In any case, “Felicity” starts to make a lot more sense if you imagine Russell was sending all those endless cassette tapes back to her handlers in Moscow. Russell is definitely making good on the promise of her show’s theme song: we can safely say that this is a “new version of you.”
The lingering sense of familiarity that besets “The Americans” is not confined to the cast. This show is the latest in the hit cable formula of “American family with a pathological secret.” Hollywood seems to be in danger of running out of good secrets, and may be forced to mix and match. But the prospect of a show about a polygamist, meth-making, pot-dealing mafia family with a mom who has Dissociative Identity Disorder would probably be too much even for Showtime (a network that has otherwise never shied away from excess). If we step back in time, though, what better next step than an American family that isn’t even American at all? Or, in this case, one that pretends so long to be an American family that it is in danger of becoming one?
The producers of “The Americans” were inspired by the 2010 “illegals” scandal, a story of espionage so ridiculous that it seemed like ready-made fodder for “The Daily Show.” Anna Chapman and her fellow agents were tasked with infiltrating American life in order to find out information readily available on Google. So when this Russian spy ring was discovered in Montclair, New Jersey (homeland of enlightened multiculturalism and skyrocketing real estate), the general reaction was amused nostalgia rather than outrage. It’s as if the long-lost Pottsylvainian agents Boris and Natasha had stopped hunting for Rocky and Bullwinkle in the real world, and started to stalk them on Facebook (“Must friend moose and squirrel.”)
Moving the action back to 1980 was an attempt to raise the stakes, but it would be easy to see it as a much more symbolic gesture. After all, “M*A*S*H*” was set during the Korean War, but received as a comment on Vietnam. So “The Americans” could be a reflection of the renewed Cold War between the US and the Russian Federation, but only in order to recognize that the current tensions come nowhere near matching the original. Mitt Romney aside, it’s difficult for most Americans to get all that worked up about Russia, and nothing ages like paranoia.
Which brings us back to “The Americans'” coziness. For “The Americans” to truly reflect the zeitgeist, it would have to reflect the preoccupations of wingnuts today.
What if Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys were really Kenyan? Now that would be a show worth watching.