Entire winters and summers pass until they are one day activated for one task or another, such as a sole hour of surveillance; and then it’s back undercover. This is real espionage, and it happened all the time in the Cold War. It even happens today, such as the 2010 case of Russian spies being snared by the FBI that possibly inspired this series (and ‘The Double’, an underrated spy movie starring Richard Gere). The Russians are back, so they say, and that can only mean one thing – that good espionage fiction is back too. And the first season of The Americans is probably the best recent espionage show.
This series spans 13 episodes. It’s about two KGB agents who have married and raised two kids in America. They’ve been embedded for so long that they have adopted, superficially at least, the American way of life. You could even call them perpetual method actors — but they are up to no good, they are the Reds next door. After a decade of tedious shit about tracking and wet working Islamic nutjobs, this is refreshing stuff. The game is bigger, the scope has widened and the consequences more serious. The year is 1981 and we are entering the ‘Star Wars’ (Reagan variant!) era, and the commies are getting anxious.
Nuclear primacy was the name of the game, and the Soviets were especially paranoid particularly in 1980-85, the Cold War endgame. The two leads, who aren’t quite antagonists, are on a hunt for missile defence technology and its progression. Cue a lot of bugs, assassinations and clandestine meetings. All of it allowed to mature and happen at its own pace, which is where 11 hours of programming will benefit. There are no break-neck Bourne-isms (mostly), the hunt is long, slow and interesting. To racket up the tension and add a fun dynamic, from the very start an unsuspecting Federal Agent moves in beside the two miscreants as a new neighbor.
There is an edge this has over recent spy movies and shows, aside from its more engaging subject matter. The fact that is is set in the 80’s means there is virtually no gadget-porn, computer thrills or satellite gimmickry. This is old school spy craft. Slow burning paranoia, long-curved operations brought down the hard way. A wig and a pair or (large, square, 80’s-style) glasses. They’ve also cast it pretty good, Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell are very easy to watch. You buy them as professional and fanatics.
In fact, as the hours pass by you begin to empathize with them. Only for the sake of entertainment, of course. Complaints? Well, more nostalgia was expected. Like Pain & Gain, a movie set in the 90’s that doesn’t look very 90’s at all, ‘The Americans’ often looks too modern too. Only now and again does it reveal it’s era setting.
If you haven’t caught this series so far and even though the subsequent seasons aren’t as good, you ought to give this a try. They say that nowadays grown ups need to turn on the TV to find stimulating entertainment. They could be right about that.