Philip and Elizabeth Jennings wake up each morning like most ordinary American families. They make breakfast, urge their two children to hurry up so they aren’t late to school, drop the kids off to school and then arrive to their “job,” a travel agency.
This may sound like an ordinary couple living in suburbia Washington D.C. in the 1980’s, but looks can be deceiving with the Jennings family. They are actually Soviet spies, the primary conflict point in the critically acclaimed FX television series “The Americans.”
“The Americans,” which just entered its fourth season, uses its main plot of Soviet spies operating as everyday citizens in the United States during the Cold War while adding twists in the subplot that could occur within everyday television dramas. Actual historical events are also added within the series. An example is an episode where United States President Ronald Reagan is shot (1981), which in this episode required the Soviets based in the United States to hide until the FBI confirmed the shooter wasn’t acting on Soviet orders.
Speaking of the FBI, the biggest subplot starts in the pilot episode when an FBI agent Stan Beeman (portrayed by Noah Emmerich) moves across the street from the Jennings. This causes immediate tension when Beeman recognizes the Jennings’ car as the same model of car the FBI was attempting to track to find a missing Soviet informant. Beeman’s hunch was correct, as the Jennings were the ones that kidnapped the ambassador, but the Jennings from this point onward operate knowing that their unsuspecting neighbor might stumble upon one of their missions.
As the series progresses, additional plots unfold, most of the time simultaneously within an episode. These include relationship issues with Philip and Elizabeth, who were a forced marriage by their government, Beeman getting in hot water after secretly blackmailing Soviet spies and the Jennings’ oldest daughter becoming suspicious that they are more than just travel agents (the kids don’t know their parents are Soviets at the beginning of the series). Wigs are common in the series, for the Jennings don’t want to appear as the same person when working their various undercover missions.
The soundtrack is my favorite aspect of the series; it’s like an 80’s jukebox. The climatic finish to the Season 1 finale had Peter Gabriel’s “Games Without Frontiers” playing in the background. In Season 3, Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” hummed along as an intense fight scene between the Soviets spies and political opponents occurred outside of a D.C. café.
The series does an excellent job of providing an authentic experience. Actors and actresses portraying Soviet characters at the embassy and back in the Soviet Union speak Russian with English subtitles. Most of the research (and attempted theft) of technology involves innovations such as stealth (which was being developed during this time period).
The show has had disappointing television ratings, which has led to frequent rumors of its cancellation. However, it has won various television awards and frequently has one of the highest scores on Rotten Tomatoes. Its critical acclaim likely has given FX the incentive to keep renewing the show for additional seasons.
Ratings aside, hopefully the show has more seasons ahead of it in the upcoming years. Not often does television provide what feels like a time capsule back into such a thrilling but dark time in international spying.