The FX drama The Americans is a TV show about a couple of Soviet spies posing as American parents in the 1980s, the decade when my own family—newly arrived from the USSR—were doing what we could to become more or less what the protagonists are pretending to be. For me, watching it has always been a conundrum. On one hand, the period detail, actual Russian speech, and intriguing plot twists are entertaining; on the other, the depiction of the Russian characters and the dialogue the screenwriters have written for them are completely off. No matter how accurate their accents are, even the sentence formation is all wrong. My guess is that the scripts are written in English, then translated. The effect is that of a very talented ventriloquist’s dummy: you marvel at the skill, but with the understanding that it’s not really him talking.
My parents and their friends cheered as the Soviet Union imploded. The place we came from was brutal, and The Americans portrays it as such, but its depiction of the USSR is less nuanced than that of the U.S. (It’s not quite Ivan Drago, but it’s a caricature nonetheless.) I wish the show was as good at portraying Russians as the protagonists, Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, are at playing Americans. But perhaps authenticity isn’t really the point.
The most compelling part of The Americans is how the Jennings deal with the charms and temptations of the American culture they’ve dedicated their lives to undermining. In season four (which premiered on March 16), father Philip (Matthew Rhys) covertly attends EST Standard Training—a 70s self-knowledge movement—without telling his wife, Elizabeth (Keri Russell), until he’s forced to because it interferes with one of their spying operations. After a couple decades in a foreign land, even the best-trained patriot could fall prey to the fads and trends of his adopted home. America is seeping into the Jenningses’ consciousness despite their best efforts to curb the intrusion. Their larger problem is coping with the fallout from letting their eldest daughter in on their true identities, but in many other small ways the Jennings are reminded almost daily that their side is losing and their mission is becoming more untenable.
At heart the show isn’t a spy thriller or geopolitical treatise, but a family drama. The Jenningses’ great challenge is to raise and provide for their children in an unusually challenging work environment. Staring at the impending end of their way of life, they’ll soon have to make some difficult choices. Immigrants, like spies, are forced to fashion a new existence in a foreign land, which is probably why this story continues to resonate with me—even if some of the details ring false, its essence is sound. The lion’s share of The Americans‘ audience doesn’t know Russian, but all its viewers have one thing in common: they desperately want to find out what will become of the Jennings family.
The Americans Wednesdays at 9 PM on FX.