The Americans: The Best Show on Television

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Review

Review by Nate Douglas

  • The German philosopher Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, in effort to show the pervasiveness of Christ’s Crucifixion in culture and as an axiom in social life, used the “Cross of Reality” to describe the suffering at the center of human experience. An actual Cross is key, not just as a symbol of anguish, but in form. Life does not work in a Euclidean line following time. Theologian Dr. Peter Leithart summarizes Rosenstock-Huessy’s Cross in this way, “Specifically, human beings are stretched out on two axes. The horizontal axis is a temporal one, stretching between past and the future. The vertical axis is spatial, as we are stretched out between ‘inner’ and ‘outer.’” So where does mankind fit into this? At the center – nailed to the Cross, being pulled, tugged and torn in all four directions at once. Past and future, wishes and pragmatism, strength and weakness, the romantic and the factual, the literal and the metaphorical.

    The last decade has seen what has been widely considered to be the Golden Age of television. Shows such as The Wire, Deadwood, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men have transformed television from a medium of network canned EZ cheese to cable Beaufort D’ete.  Hollywood on the other hand has become the purveyor of franchises and superhero popcorn, studio bureaucracy and money-whipping marketing, as recently documented in the strong but slightly self-righteous and not-exactly-ignorant, more-like-blatantly-obvious-in-its-morals best picture winner, Birdman. I enjoyed Birdman, but it’s not cinema that will be remembered for years to come. Breaking Bad on the other hand changed and shaped culture, became the standard and will be remembered for decades. There are exceptions of course, and good films are still being made – but there is without a doubt a change in trajectories.

    Television in many ways has become superior to cinema. Among which, it offers more opportunities to tell long-form stories, lending more time to enrich and develop its characters. Television also operates on a much smaller and stricter budget, forcing writers to be more creative, original and disciplined with their story-telling, and less reliant on special effects, locations and big name actors. Many have taken note, and some excellent Hollywood filmmakers and actors have transitioned to television – continuing in the making of excellent art.

    The Wire, Deadwood and Breaking Bad are a wrap. Mad Men isn’t what it once was and ends this spring – so who reigns supreme? If you had to watch one show, what would it be? Enter: FX’s The Americans. Two KGB spies, subjects of an arranged partnership barely out of their teens by their hammer and sickle leaders, created to pose as Americans in the States and carry-out missions for the Motherland. The two aforementioned spies are Phillip (played by the brilliant Welshman, Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth (the icy Texan, Keri Russell) Jennings, now in their late-thirties, living in the DC suburbs in the 1980s as travel agents with their two children. Their whole cover is contrived. It does not matter if they are married in the eyes of God or genuinely love each other; they have a duty to their country which takes precedent. This duty frequently involves deceit, stakeouts, espionage, sex, and murder. Make no mistake – this is a spy show, and double (even triple) agents and disguises abound. But that’s not The Americans’ genius. Fidelity, parenting, marriage, and absorbing vocations have been done before. But by Russians bent on the USA’s destruction? This changes things.

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    This change is important because it forces the American viewer, unlike most shows (or films) to look at the Jennings from an outward perspective, as well as an inward perspective. The cover complicates matters. From an outward perspective, the Jennings are soldiers. Contrarily, the inward perspective shows marital struggles but also love (or attempt to love) each other. On one hand, the Jennings are socialists raising their oblivious children in a capitalist society, endangering their most important work. On the other, sometimes the most rewarding elements of Phillip and Elizabeth’s work were achieved by and through the love of their children. Their ruthless job would demand principal, however conscience would excruciatingly tear at their souls. Because of these dichotomies, The Americans illustrates Rosenstock-Huessy’s Cross of Reality in a most profound way that not many other television series have.

    The show features an extremely strong cast, also led by the great Noah Emmerich who plays a tortured FBI searching for Russian sleeper cells – and lives across the street from the Jennings. One of his early operational success was flipping a Russian embassy worker, played by the beautiful Russian Annet Mahendru. Direction and cinematography, while not nuanced like Breaking Bad, is incredibly strong in its subtlety. The series also serves as social commentary of its times (suburban life in the 80s) as well as today (drawing parallels between the Russian and American Afghanistan war quagmires). The period music selections are brilliant in their deliberateness, such as in the Jennings’ marital strife in the pilot leading to a chase scene and eventual reconciliation to Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk”. The show can be quite humorous (because, wigs), but also rife in tension.

    But The Americans’ greatest strength lies in its ability to hold up a mirror. Fewer nations have existed in history that have thought themselves as exceptional and as the greatest country in the world than the United States. Yet at the micro-level, Phillip and Elizabeth are incredibly sympathetic – their struggles cut deep. At the other end of the spectrum, the macro-politics are irrelevant to show. Political bluster between nations leads inherently to tribalism, and The Americans assumes this, pushes Friedman and Marx to the side, and moves right along to more important things. The Americans serves as a foil that America in all her self-absorbed glory needs. The Jennings waffle between the axes, compromising or unsure (sometimes unknowingly) in which direction they’re being pulled, or which gods they serve. Thankfully, the story doesn’t have to end with mankind fighting to the end, nailed to the Cross. Only when mankind submits to it, can it be saved.

    Season Three of The Americans can be viewed on Wednesday nights on FX. Seasons one and two are available on Amazon Prime.

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