Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 11/3/2017 (1493 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
This week you can watch Russian operatives attempting to infiltrate and influence the course of American democracy. And no, this is not CNN coverage of the Trump administration’s alleged ties to Vladimir Putin. It’s Season 5 of The Americans.
OK, so now will you tune into this crackerjack television series?
The Americans (Tuesdays, FX) has been labouring under that "best show you’re not watching" designation for four seasons now. Critics adore the series, but mass audiences have remained wary of its austere, understated, rather chilly charms.
Now the show — once viewed as a retro Reagan-era period piece, with its ’80s-inflected soundtrack and deliberately bad wigs — is getting an unexpected boost, as cultural commentators talk up its newfound "relevance."
Recent headlines have suggested that the Cold War power plays The Americans chronicles with such precision haven’t gone away but instead have mutated into other forms.
If this new sense of topicality grabs some fresh viewers for the under-rated series, well, that’s swell. By all means, come for the sneaky Russian-American espionage shenanigans, but stay for the intelligent and feeling exploration of modern family, modern marriage and modern identity, which has always been the series’ true subject.
Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, played with quiet brilliance by Matthew Rhys and Kerri Russell, are 1980s Soviet sleeper agents who pass as married-with-children D.C.-area travel agents.
This means we might see Elizabeth leaving a casserole in the oven as she heads out to gather sexually loaded compromising material — or kompromat, as hardcore Trump-watchers are now calling it — on some hapless bureaucrat. Or we could watch Philip supposedly driving to the office to catch up on routine paperwork when he’s actually doing reconnaissance for some low-level assassination.
The Jennings’ cover as average folks isn’t just incidental, however. While The Americans is billed as a show about Russian spies who happen to be married middle-class suburbanites, it’s really about married middle-class suburbanites who happen to be Russian spies.
The spy craft is terrific — tense, subtle and expertly plotted and paced — but the real battles are on the home front, fought in Philip and Elizabeth’s bedroom or at the kitchen table. These tensions will deepen this season as Moscow pressures the couple to bring their teenaged daughter, Paige (Holly Taylor), into "the family business."
It’s true that Elizabeth and Philip’s issues with "work/life balance" involve violent, risky bursts of blackmail, dead drops, hand-to-hand combat and corpse disposal, but the series is much more about the emotional cost of living undercover, with every relationship, even the most intimate, swathed with deception, so that the ties of friendship, family and sex often turn into traps of mutually assured destruction.
With its patient writing, complex characters and unshowy performances, The Americans is one of the most grown-up dramas on television.
Sure, the show is about Americans and Russians, and right now — with talk about meetings with the Russian ambassador and campaign interference and coverups — that’s generating media buzz. But more importantly, the show is — and always has been — about husbands and wives, parents and children. It’s about identity and affiliation, about what we choose to believe in and what we choose to betray.
That’s plenty relevant for me.
Studying at the University of Winnipeg and later Toronto’s York University, Alison Gillmor planned to become an art historian. She ended up catching the journalism bug when she started as visual arts reviewer at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.