Curtis Sittenfeld: Here's why you should be watching 'The Americans'
Whenever I’m evangelizing for The Americans (which is often), I say the following: As with other complex shows, you have to start with the first season of FX’s drama about ’80s Soviet spies embedded in suburban Virginia, and watch every episode in order. Even then, you probably won’t get hooked immediately. The show is more violent than what I usually go for, and during an early episode in which a mother and baby were clearly in danger, I declared to my husband that if they were dead by the end of the hour, then The Americans and I were parting ways.
Slight spoiler alert:One of them died and one didn’t. Thus, I persevered, and by the next episode, the show had gotten into my bloodstream. It was so suspenseful and smart, so magnificently detailed without showing off its details, so expertly controlled in its pacing, that I found myself thinking about it while I wasn’t watching. Even though there’s a lot of good TV these days, it had been a while since I’d been truly obsessed.
Another thing I say when evangelizing is that if you’re married, it’s a really fun show to watch with your spouse. This is because it’s about both spycraft and marriage: KGB agents Philip and Elizabeth Jennings are posing as an ordinary American couple, and they’re the parents of a teenage daughter and younger son. After living and working together in America since the ’60s, often while sleeping with their targets or informants in the line of duty, Philip and Elizabeth have only recently fallen in love with each other—which makes their relationship complex in ways both steamy and thought-provoking.
Before I started watching, I was under the impression that The Americans was about suburb dwellers who occasionally delve into espionage; actually, it’s about spies who occasionally act in a suburban manner, just enough to keep their kids, neighbors, and co-workers fooled. Both Elizabeth and Philip are ruthless, and the fact that she’s as violent as he is—and less remorseful—feels like an odd form of gender progress.
While Keri Russell, who plays Elizabeth, is a conventionally attractive woman, many other characters are quirky-looking like real people are quirky-looking—like actors on TV used to be. They have receding hairlines and weird chins and not-great skin, all of which reinforces the conceit that the events are taking place 30 years ago—as do the judiciously selected clothing, home decor, and music. Matthew Rhys, who plays Philip, probably isn’t by most standards the handsomest man on television, but thanks to Philip’s badassery, tormented psyche, and unswerving devotion to his wife, I defy anyone who says he’s not the hottest.
Of course, no discussion of The Americans is complete without a paean to the wigs Philip and Elizabeth wear as disguises. Some are recurring, some are one-offs, and all are used in the interest of the duo’s deception. These wigs are extraordinary—variously frumpy and sexy—and the fact that they’re almost never remarked on by the characters only strengthens their power. In a way, the wigs are a metaphor for the show: They’re astonishing but so grounded in a particular scene, so necessary to the complicated work, that they’re not acknowledged.
Now in its third season, The Americans has yet to gain a wide audience—recent episodes have earned fewer than one million viewers—and its underdog status is, no doubt, one of the reasons I evangelize for it. And selfishly, I want it to stay on the air. So trust me: You really should watch an episode or four.