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Spies, Just Like Us: You Should Be Watching ‘The Americans’

The Cold War ended in 1991 when the Soviet Union fractured into a patchwork of independent republics. That it could break apart seemed incomprehensible to those of us who grew up with the assumption that the United States and the Soviet Union would stare each other down from atop their missile silos for eternity.

When the dust settled, there was exhilaration, but also great uncertainty as to the future of the relationship. The Russians and the Americans, it was assumed, would never be close allies, but they could find areas for cooperation, and perhaps the elaborate, tit-for-tat game of espionage and counter-espionage — embedded moles, honeytraps and spy swaps — would wind down now that we were no longer in mortal peril.

There was public astonishment, then, in 2010 when the FBI arrested a ring of Russian spies who’d been living in plain sight in this country for years as apparently placid suburbanites, married with children, holding down unremarkable jobs.

Their instructions were to infiltrate the upper echelons of American political life and extract information on decision making at the highest levels, although how they were going to do this from Montclair, N.J., not exactly a hotbed of think-tanks or policy wonks, was unclear.

The terrific FX series The Americans takes this concept and runs with it. The show was created by former CIA operative Joe Weisberg, who made the prudent decision to relocate the action to 1980s Washington, D.C., not long after Ronald Reagan’s inauguration as president, thereby raising the dramatic stakes tenfold.

Let’s face it, when the Cold War ended, movie makers and writers the world over went into a deep, creative funk. Where else would they find a conflict so bitter and so tailor-made for drama? Life found its own way to replace the Cold War with the war on terror and the war on drugs, of course, but the deep chill of London, Berlin, Paris or Moscow always exerted a unique pull.

The Americans is early into its second season on FX; its first season, which premiered last year, is available on DVD and through streaming. What makes the show so good is the way it seamlessly aligns the dark arts of spying with the undercurrents and tensions that exist in marriage and family. There are two sides to all marriages, and we all navigate between our private and public faces, but in the case of The Americans, that’s taken to the nth degree. How deeply can you bury a secret self? When and how will it emerge? Or will it be revealed when it’s most dangerous?

Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, played by Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys, are KGB agents who, back in the old country, have been paired in an arranged marriage and sent over to the U.S. in the 1960s. They’re trained to become American in every conceivable way: voice, dress, mannerisms. Blend in, don’t stand out.

They’re innocuous on the surface — Elizabeth makes cookies for the school bake sale, and Philip barbecues in the back yard and invites their neighbor Stan over for beer. But when the kids are at school or tucked into their beds at night, the Jennings are busy kidnapping or seducing targets, sending coded messages and taking out their enemies. That’s their job. Here, “Honey, I’m home” takes on a deliciously perverse second meaning.

The set-up in the first season is that new neighbors move in next to the Jenningses on their quiet suburban street. Stan Beeman, his wife Sandra and their kids seem as ordinary as the Jennings. But when Stan tells them that he works for the FBI, the Jenningses’ antennae don’t just go up, they vibrate. Are they under surveillance, is he on to them?

What they don’t realize is that the greatest danger to them comes, not from Stan but from their oldest child, teenage Paige. The show brilliantly plays off that period in life when you wonder what your parents are hiding, and who they really are, and you’re determined to find out. Your bond with them is also mingled with hostility and some disgust. So Paige begins to snoop where she shouldn’t, which is made easier by her parents’ frequent absences and inattention to their children’s lives. Helicopter parents they’re not.

Meanwhile, Stan turns Nina, a young woman working in the Soviet Consulate in Washington, D.C. And Philip lures Martha, a secretary working for Stan’s boss at the FBI, into a marriage so he can get at classified material to which she has access; bigamy is all in a day’s work for the KGB operative.

The question becomes, in seasons 1 and 2, who’s playing whom? And will the Russians playing the Americans go over to the other side? Have the Jenningses been in country too long, gotten too soft? There’s a suggestion that Philip sees virtues in the American system while Elizabeth is fiercely Communist.

Like many cable series, The Americans over indulges in sex and violence, and it traffics in cliches — beautiful women showed semi-nude and tastefully draped while not quite-as-beautiful women are used for weird sexual comic relief. Just because cable TV has more license with nudity, language and violence doesn’t mean it always has to use them. Overreliance on that trifecta brings its own clichés.

And although it tips a hat to the ideological struggle between capitalism and Communism, it doesn’t always pause to consider it in any meaningful way. This was a profound battle to the death, with shadow wars, regimes propped up by terror and surveillance, huge nuclear stockpiles and heated rhetoric. Not such a Cold War after all.

The painstaking, often tedious analysis of intelligence work is overlooked in favor of chases, dead drops and gun play. This isn’t John Le Carré, with his subtle characterizations and deep moral dilemmas. (The writers might refer to both the TV and filmed versions of LeCarré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, in which a simple search for manila file folders in an office library is agonizingly suspenseful.)

But as TV goes, The Americans is first rate, with head-snapping twists and turns, and a compelling, believable portrait of marriages under strain. And with Vladimir Putin’s annexation of the Crimea, and the resurrection of fears of an aggressive Russia intent on bringing some republics back into the fold, The Americans suddenly seems relevant in a way no one could have anticipated. In entertainment terms, at least, it’s good to have the Cold War back.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.