Set in the early 1980s, the show tells of a pair of Soviet KGB agents, Misha and Nadezhda (played by Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell), who were trained as undercover spies and sent to the United States to blend in to the local population. There they become Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, with a fake marriage that produces two very real children, Paige and Henry, American to the core and with no idea that their parents are anything other than the fairly boring travel agents they purport to be.
Neither does their neighbor, Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), an FBI agent tasked with counterespionage.
Last year the show seemed rather quaint. With the Soviet Union gone in a puff of smoke and its truncated successor state, the Russian Federation, acting fairly friendly, the intricate game between the FBI and the KGB feels a bit overblown. Could we ever really have been that afraid of the Russians?
This season, with Ukraine dominating the headlines in real life and Russian President Vladimir Putin topping the list of global villains, the message is a bit sharper. The Cold War is a lot easier to understand these days, and Ronald Reagan’s “Evil Empire” rhetoric doesn’t seem nearly as far-fetched.
Younger viewers are most likely mystified by a world without computers and cellphones, not to mention some fairly weird hairstyles and clothes. Those of a certain age revel in the music, which ranges from Phil Collins to Roberta Flack to Peter Gabriel, while realizing with dismay that the 1980s have already retreated into the historical background, like the Civil War or the Roaring ’20s.
Series creator Joe Weisberg worked for the CIA in the 1990s, and builds as much real-life spycraft into the show as possible. He has to submit each and every manuscript to his former employers for review, since he signed a secrecy agreement back at Langley. This gives the CIA the enviable position of knowing how every episode ends weeks before the rest of us, which just might be a reason to join up.
In an interview with Slate, Weisberg and fellow writer Joel Fields said that they had worried that Philip and Elizabeth would not be sympathetic enough, since they are, after all, KGB officers. The characters also do some fairly unpalatable things in the course of their patriotic endeavors: They lie, cheat and steal with abandon, and barely an episode goes by without a murder or two.
But somehow we love them. In fact, it’s not just Philip and Elizabeth who steal our hearts, but the full complement of Soviet agents, who on the whole are smarter, more sophisticated and a lot sexier than their American counterparts.
Here are just a few seditious lessons we learn from “The Americans.”
1. Russians make better lovers. Just about anyone who is having decent sex in this series is having it with a Russian. Poor Stan Beeman is stuck in a dead marriage and feeling the need for some excitement. In the course of his work he meets — and recruits — the alluring Nina (Annet Mahendru), a secretary at the Soviet Embassy, and promptly falls in love with her. She is playing him, of course — he’s having a much more satisfying liaison with another Soviet spy, the gorgeous Oleg (Costa Ronin). Or maybe she’s playing him, too?
Elizabeth puts out for the Motherland as well, with a whole string of unappealing Americans who have information she needs. In a variety of wigs she attracts and then outmaneuvers her unimaginative targets to complete her mission.
Philip is also quite the stud. He seduces an FBI employee, the homely but efficient Martha (Alison Wright), to whom he opens up a whole new world in the bedroom. He eventually marries her to keep her pliable — with the help of his “real” fake wife, Elizabeth.
The only “Americans” capable of real passion seem to be Philip and Elizabeth themselves. They have some surprisingly steamy encounters, such as the Season Two premiere, which might be the first “69” scene in a television series. Wonder whether they would have been allowed to do that in Sverdlovsk …
2. Americans lead empty, self-indulgent, wasteful lives. There has yet to be a real US good guy. Stan’s wife, Sandra (Susan Misner), is a wacky housewife looking for fulfillment through a string of ’80s self-help gurus like Leo Buscaglia, Dr. Ruth, and Werner Erhard, founder of EST.
Elizabeth and Philip’s son is addicted to video games, while their daughter has been sucked into a Bible study group, much to her parents’ chagrin.
Then there’s Carl, the coke-sniffing, meth-smoking congressional aide, and Charles Duluth, the alcoholic American journalist who freelances for the KGB.
The best of the bunch is Gregory (Derek Luke), Elizabeth’s lover. But Gregory, a black activist, is so turned off by America’s racial politics that he gives himself heart and soul to serving the Soviet Union — at least until he’s ordered to go to Moscow.
3. The Soviets were not always on the wrong side of history. Elizabeth and Philip are intent on exposing US support for the Nicaraguan Contras, a shameful episode in US history that still rankles more than 30 years later. The spies infiltrate a Contra training camp run by US special forces, intending to take photos and leak them to the media.
The creators certainly had authentic material — they drew in Oliver North, a former Marine Corps lieutenant colonel and Reagan-era official who knows a thing or two about Nicaragua. In 1989 North was convicted of obstructing an investigation into the Iran-Contra affair, in which the Reagan administration defied its own sanctions to secretly sell weapons to Iran, using the proceeds to assist the rebels battling the Marxist Sandinistas. Maybe we should ask Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega (himself a Sandinista) what he thinks of the show.
4. Americans are cultural dolts. In an attempt to woo Nina, Stan (above) rents a movie that the store clerk assures him is guaranteed to make women cry. The Russian finds Meryl Streep’s portrayal of “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” unconvincing, and is incensed by the referral to the character as a “whore.”
“Do you think Anna Karenina was a whore?” she demands angrily. Stan gazes at her in confusion. “You’ve heard of this book?” she asks. “Haven’t had the pleasure,” replies Stan, who can’t figure out why his beloved is now gazing at him in absolute horror.
5. Caviar is better than cheeseburgers. As a special treat for his wife, Philip gets his hands on some beluga caviar. Elizabeth’s expression of ecstasy as she samples it is a joy to behold. Stan, on the other hand, offers a captured Soviet spy a cheeseburger as a gesture of friendship — right before he shoots him in the head.
6. America always wins. With at least one more season to go, it should be too soon to tell how “The Americans” will end, but the writing is already on the wall.
Even in the earliest episodes, we sense Philip’s longing to be a real part of this world he inhabits, where, as he says “the food is pretty great and the electricity always works.”
Elizabeth tries to assert her ideological purity: “It’s easier here, it’s nicer. It’s not better.” But we see her growing disaffection with the Soviet system. When another undercover couple is killed, Elizabeth is supposed to give a letter to their son, telling him who his parents really were. Instead, she sets fire to it, sparing a grieving boy the additional burden of knowing he is the child of Soviet spies.
Cheeseburgers win out over caviar every time.