I have a confession. Donald Trump is not the only one whose sympathies lie with the Russians. I too find myself rooting for them at the most unexpected moments.It happens once a week, for about an hour at a time . . . whenever I watch The Americans on FX channel. As for Trump, I think we are all confused & concerned by his bizarre attitude toward Russia and its strongman leader Vladamir Putin, and it has become genuinely scary in the past few weeks as threads of new mysteries have revealed themselves, only to leave us with more unanswered questions. But if any silver lining can be found in this unsettling situation, it’s that it gives me an excuse to urge you to watch one of the best shows on television right now (well, not right now – the new season doesn’t start until March 7, but that gives you plenty of time to catch up on the first four seasons before the season five premieres).
I know I should probably be writing something about the many confirmation hearings taking place this week for Trump’s cabinet nominees. There’s a lot of controversy over the whole collection of nominees – between the fact that several of them haven’t finished their ethics vetting (and what vetting we have seen has already turned up issues for a number of them, e.g. Tom Price’s shady stock purchase), many seem to hold philosophies that are in direct conflict with the missions of the agencies they are set to lead (e.g. Scott Pruitt for EPA chief, Andrew Puzder for Labor Secretary), some are just flat out unqualified for the job (we see you, Betsy DeVos), and one has no idea what his agency even does (Rick Perry). But I’ve got to admit, I’m just so burnt out on Trump’s nonsense, I need something a little fun today. So I’m going to tell you about The Americans.
If you’re not familiar with the show, it’s about a pair of undercover Russian (technically, Soviet) spies in the 1980s, Elizabeth & Philip Jennings, played by Keri Russell & Matthew Rhys. They are in an arranged marriage, facilitated by the KGB in order for them to pose as an average American couple running a travel agency in the Washington, D.C. area. At the outset of the show, the spies have been together for a couple decades and have two children. So the show is both a spy drama and a family drama, with much of the family tension focused on Elizabeth & Philip navigating their unusual relationship with each other, along with the strain of keeping their secret from their kids.
Most of the show occurs from the perspective of Elizabeth & Philip & their kids, so before you even realize it, you’re sucked in and rooting for them. It’s a very disconcerting moment when you suddenly stop and sit back halfway through the show to realize, “wait a minute, I’m cheering for the guys who are spying on us!”
The show’s creator, Joe Weisberg, used to work as a CIA officer, so he’s able to give the show a sense of authenticity and fill it in with great, true-to-life details. The show is also painstakingly careful about getting all of the 1980s period details exactly right, whether it’s clothing, house furnishings, electronics, tv clips, etc, so there are lots of fun little sparks of nostalgia throughout the show. A couple weeks ago, Weisberg and the show’s executive producer Joel Fields did a press tour for the upcoming season, and of course everyone wanted to know what they thought about their show suddenly being relevant in a whole new way, thanks to our current politics. Here’s what Weisberg had to say:
[A]s you all recall, when we sat here many years ago, the initial idea of the show was really to say, Hey, look, these people who we think of as enemies are really just like us. And that was at a more peaceful time in U.S.-Russia relations. To see things spiral so out of control, frankly, just doesn’t feel so good.
Anyway, if you decide to watch the show – or if you’re already a fan – a great podcast companion to it is The Americans: Slate TV Club Insider. It features conversations with Weisberg and Fields, along with other people behind the scenes of the show, such as the set director, costume designer, etc. It also has interviews with many of the actors, including the leads. So there’s tons of fun inside scoop about what goes into making the show. They also occasionally have guests from outside the show, such as one episode where they interviewed a real life former Russian spy who was stationed in the United States. It was really fascinating stuff. So definitely give it a try if you have some time for listening. Oh, but don’t listen until after you’ve watched the tv episode it matches up with, because there might be SPOILERS otherwise. Enjoy!