I’m afraid of Americans

As a great Russian writer once wrote: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Especially if the parents are agents for the KGB, know what I’m saying?”

The TV series The Americans, which ran on FX from 2013 to 2018, combined various genres into one neat package: it was a spy thriller, a period piece set in the early to mid-’80s, a domestic drama about the difficulties of marriage, in particular when you have conflicting ideas about how to bring up your children – something that isn’t exactly made easier when you’re a pair of Soviet “Illegals”, that is, KGB sleeper agents posing as a normal American couple. The Americans was often masterfully tense, balancing its thriller and drama elements to great effect.

Arguably, the series’ greatest asset was its core cast and the characters they played, especially Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys as Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, parents of two and KGB agents undercover deep in enemy territory: Elizabeth the ideologue and firm believer in the Communist cause, while Philip is more fascinated and attracted by the United States, its niceties and the people they are spying on, in particular their neighbour Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), who happens to work in FBI counterintelligence. Once one gets past the slight contrivance of the premise (which would be perfect for a Three’s Company-style sitcom penned by the Homeland team), it is a rich source for suspenseful plots about identity and subterfuge, friendship and betrayal, as Stan becomes a mark for the Jennings, a threat, and an unlikely best friend for Philip, who in turn loses faith in his mission as the ’80s go on and the ethics of their assignment become increasingly dubious.

Elizabeth and Philip are the kind of protagonists that twenty years ago – before the likes of Tony Soprano and Walter White – would have been unlikely main characters in a TV series. TV protagonists could be conflicted, but television in the ’90s offered little room for characters that only a decade earlier would clearly have been the enemy. Week after week, the Jennings would do their part to subvert the United States, by scheming and manipulating, by offering themselves up as honey traps and then blackmailing their marks – and by killing. The audience came to know Elizabeth and Philip, as parents, co-workers and friends, they saw them as fully fleshed-out human beings, and then they’d watch as these human beings would do inhumane things. They were following orders, to be sure, but it’s not as if that excuse ever convinced anyone. As professional as the two of them were, though, they were increasingly affected by their actions and their implications, and over time the Jennings changed and their loyalties – to their country, their mission, and to each other – shifted, as the distinction between masks worn on a daily basis and real selves became more and more blurred.

While The Americans handled its multiple genres and themes of subterfuge, identity, ideology, marriage and parenthood smartly, I never quite came to agree with TV critics such as Alan Sepinwall who considered it a clear entry into the Best TV of All Time canon. As much as I enjoyed the series, I could never quite shake the impression that too often its writers and showrunners knew one way of continuing the plot, namely escalation, which it’s very difficult to pull off well and, if done more than once or twice, invariably comes across as repetition. Too often, the series would resort to replaying earlier plot points: someone gets close to finding out about the Jennings, Philip and Elizabeth are at odds with their handlers, Philip has doubts about his mission, Philip and Elizabeth clash over how to raise their children, just more so than last time round. The series did its best to vary these recurring elements, but for me it wasn’t altogether enough for a series spanning six seasons. Although The Americans had interesting themes that it handled with nuance, it was nonetheless plot-driven much of the time, and as a result the frequent variations on plot points we’d seen before made it feel like it was treading water – or like it was fulfilling the structural needs of network television before addressing its own storytelling needs.

Admittedly, some of this could also be said about some of the series whose place in the TV canon I’d consider less debatable; in particular the granddaddy of them all, The Sopranos, also kept telling variations on the same story. However, while The Sopranos had overarching plots they were always secondary to the series’ themes. The saga of Tony Soprano was much more structured like a series of short stories, each reinforcing the central themes, one of which was that the circularity of Tony’s life as a mob boss and his cycles of self-pity and self-exoneration: Tony Soprano was not a character who could develop, he was someone who at best could feign development as a way of distracting himself and others from his own monstrosity. In that sense, repetition fulfilled a similar purpose in The Sopranos as it did in The Peanuts: like Charlie Brown coming back again and again for another attempt to kick that football, Tony would keep going through the motions of trying to develop as a person, as a husband, a father and a boss. The repetition was there to make a point about Tony and his world.

This sort of circularity and futility was not a core part of The Americans to the same extent; its own tendency towards repetition and escalation – upping the ante but essentially hitting the same story beats – made it feel closer to other TV series. This doesn’t take anything away from its strengths, but to my mind it resulted in the series never quite becoming more than an example of very good craftsmanship. I can imagine a version of The Americans that is either much more focused and stripped down to the bare essentials or alternatively one that is more loosely structured but driven more by its themes than by what happens next (which, in turn, may only come to a head three episodes later because of what would a season be without the prerequisite number of episodes?).

Don’t get me wrong: the version of The Americans that we got was very good, sometimes excellent TV, in particular due to its actors, but it rarely felt like it had the ambition to transcend the medium. It came closest in the private moments between characters, the scenes that felt like chamber plays where the characters’ personalities, beliefs and emotions rubbed against each other, generating dramatic energy, or alternatively in the wordless moments when we watched the consummate professionals Elizabeth and Philip at work and when success and catastrophe were just a hair’s breadth apart – or possibly they were the same thing, just seen from different perspectives. And while for me The Americans as a whole didn’t quite live up to its potential, its final few episodes were close enough to that ideal version of the series that I’d been hoping to see for six seasons. It would be a shame to miss out on the fact that The Americans was consistently pretty damn good just because of this idea that it should have, and could have, been better.

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