Artur Davis: “The Americans” — Bad History, Great TV?

It may be a middle aged man’s perspective, but I recall the 80s as much more vivid and alluring than Joe Weisberg, the creator of FX’s “The Americans” suggests. In this drama about a pair of Russian KGB operatives who masquerade as married American travel agents in the early Reagan years, (Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings, Matthew Rhys as Phillip Jennings) the decade is not so much MTV slick as gray in the stolid pattern of, say, the late fifties. And it is not just the deliberate pace, or the square personas of the FBI agents, or the fact that the show’s obligatory generational gap between parents and children is so sanitized that it seems to predate the furies of the seventies and sixties: the real source of drabness here is deeper, and rests on Weisberg’s characterization of the penultimate years of the Cold War as a sluggish collision between two exhausted warriors, who are stumbling around each other in a fog of confusion and blunder.

This imagining of the early 80s as one long slog without purpose works its way through every layer of the “Americans”. The Jennings are laboring through a marriage that was conceived as a cover, has run hot and cold over the years, and is complicated by the fact that ensnaring espionage targets in sex traps is part of their modus operandi. Noah Emmerich’s Stan Beeman, an FBI agent who strains a metaphor by living next door to the Jennings, is fumbling his way through mid-life angst: his own marriage is collapsing from too many years spent chasing criminals during irregular hours, and the affair he falls into with his Soviet informant (Annet Mahendru) seems born out of opportunism and the fatigue from keeping ambiguous moral lines straight. Both the Jennings and Beeman are true believers but they also resemble thrill-seekers, who chose daredevil careers to supply the vibrancy that would have been missing in their lives.

And if the characters are drifting through a moral haze, so are their respective superpowers. In Weisberg’s account, the Cold War is less ideological zeal than bureaucratized routine. The shadow boxing between the FBI and the KGB’s domestic American operations is driven by miscalculations and measured retributions for offenses that themselves were often accidental or hastily improvised. It is noticeable that almost all of the killing is either retaliatory or unplanned, and in its own way, brutal but strategically incompetent. The show is hardly clueless about Soviet cruelty, but in this narrative, it is less the dark soul of totalitarianism, more the emptiness of an amoral enterprise that runs on autopilot.

davis_artur-11In other words, the 80s of the “Americans” is far from the idealized political landscape that most conservatives remember. Is Weisberg’s revisionism a sub rosa commentary that the dying throes of the Cold War were just histrionics between adversaries who needed the polarity of the east-west struggle to sustain their fix? To be sure, at moments, the series dabbles with a liberal-leaning perspective: when Elizabeth tries steering their adolescent, and blissfully apolitical, kids toward a leftist view of current events,  Phillip later rebuffs her with a tart “This country doesn’t create socialists”, a hard to miss jab at the far right’s insinuations about a certain early 21st century president. The depiction of a black KGB operative named Gregory (Derek Luke) is provocative: he is a disillusioned American, a former 60s civil rights activist who dons a cover as a drug dealer, and in his tortured relationship with his country, there is a hint of a meme that regularly surfaces on the left—the insinuation that the 80s drug war was just the establishment’s counter-insurgency at misunderstood young black men.

Or, Weisberg may only be doing what the best television drama has been honing into a style since, well, the 80s: protagonists who struggle to resolve their ethical dilemmas, good deeds for the wrong reasons and vice versa, and the disconcerting appeal of corrupt figures who are simultaneously charming. Perhaps this familiar enough take only seems jarring when it is exported to the context of the epic global fight of the post WWII era. (and  it is fair to conclude that Weisberg’s Russians are more nuanced than “Homeland’s” jihadists or the shadowy right wing conspirators lurking in “24″ or “Scandal”, or any given “NCIS” episode.)

Whatever motivates the “Americans”, the show is a reminder that history grows rust. While the truth is that the two superpowers represented contradictory visions of human dignity and potential, and that their struggle was much more freighted with significance than the weary back and forth in Weisberg’s version indicates, it’s worth acknowledging that a substantial share of the audience simply doesn’t remember. Therein lies a dilemma that at least partly explains why contemporary conservatism seems spent and dull to Americans under 35. What their textbooks recalled of the 80s was the hardening of excess into a cultural phenomenon, a style that was too affected to take seriously, and the spirit of protest morphing into a distressed, predatory inner city. In that rendition, the stirring of Walesa and the endurance of East Berliners and Czechs has easily gotten lost, as has the revival of national confidence right before everything turned sour and complex again.

To be sure, the drama’s just ended first season was invariably good, sometimes even superb, television. And the potential for parody in a show about suburban parents doubling as spies was risky enough that Weisberg deserves credit for wringing a taut, consistently high-class drama out of a premise that sounds like silliness. Could he have made it more honest by capturing the moral stakes at the heart of the Reagan Revolution? I’d like to think so: but then again, a generation of conservatives hasn’t always done such a swell job of retelling the story either.

(Cross-posted from


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