Spies Like U.S.

americansElizabeth (Keri Russell) and Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys) are two deep-cover KGB spies hiding in the plain-sight of Washington DC’s suburbs in mid-1981. They’ve been there since the ’60s in an arranged marriage, as part of a special breed of Russian spies, trained for years to be able to pass themselves off as ordinary Americans. They lead unremarkable lives while working within a network of Soviet spies and informants.

The series begins as Ronald Reagan has just been elected president, vowing to increase military spending and confront Soviets everywhere, including increased powers for the FBI. The couple’s new neighbour turns out to be an FBI agent, leaving them to wonder if it’s an unfortunate coincidence or if he is onto them, despite his acting as a friendly new acquaintance.

This is the premise of new TV series The Americans and i’s the best new thing in pop culture this month. From the pilot episode, Philip Jennings is questioning his loyalty to the motherland and has begun to like America. The U.S. doesn’t seem all that bad the longer he lives there and, compared to the alternative, he comes to see democracy as a good thing. Not that it stops him killing and torturing for the KGB, and his arranged wife is even more gung-ho in her duties. The two kids, meanwhile, are oblivious to it all. The spying methods are from a more primitive era, and with a lack of modern technology they are far more interesting.

Dead drops and number codes are used rather than digitally encrypted files, for example. Presumably they are also accurate as series creator Joe Weisberg worked in the CIA’s directorate of operations in the early 1990s before becoming a professional writer. He manages here to make it all seem plausible – even the assault by poisoned
umbrella recalls the actual method used to kill Bulgarian dissident and defector to the West, Georgi Markov in 1978.

The period setting also works well, while the plot sits nicely within the context of actual events, whether it’s trying to bug the office of Secretary of State Caspar Weinberger or dealing with the fallout from John Hinckley Jr’s assassination  attempt on Reagan. Presumably, later episodes will deal with other key Cold War moments such as the death of Leonid Brezhnev in 1982. The soundtrack, with songs from Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk and even Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight”, works in the same way that Martin Scorsese uses music to time-stamp his films.

Thankfully it’s not too action-heavy or dumbed down (although it can be violent) and has neat conclusions each week. It requires you to pay attention — especially during the first few episodes when characters are being introduced — so it’s best to record it and fast forward through the adverts to let the episodes maintain their momentum. It’s not a TV version of Mr & Mrs Smith or anything like last year’s flop Undercovers. It would be nice to see this develop into a a darker, Cold War Homeland with the detailed period sensibilities of Mad Men. After the first five episodes we’ve seen, though, it’s a nice little drama in its own right. And if nothing else, it’s good to have a new series that isn’t about lawyers, doctors or the police.

For Esquire magazine – click here for original PDF – The Americans

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