Thursday, March 9, 2017

'The Americans': Still Great, But Near Its Natural End

Last night I caught the season premiere of The Americans. Set in the early Reagan era, this FX spy series tells the story of undercover Soviet sleeper agents and their FBI pursuers.

I did a bit of googling this morning, and I noticed that the Trump-obsessed commentariat insist on drawing cockamamie comparisons between The Americans and the first year of the Trump administration.

Nonsense. Whatever your opinions on Donald Trump, do not allow such natterers to distract you. (Increasingly, writers for mainstream journalistic outlets are too young to remember the Reagan years, and failed to learn about them adequately in school.)

The Americans is a story of cold war espionage, set in the heart of suburban America. It is brilliant on multiple levels. The season five premiere did not disappoint.

That said, the plot and characters have grown increasingly complex, to the point where they now rely on a significant amount of backstory. If you haven't yet watched The Americans, I would almost encourage you to skip season five for now, and go back to the very beginning on Netflix. To jump in cold at season five would be a bit like beginning the Game of Thrones on the second or third book.

The Americans is not a series that one expects to go on for years and years. The storyline is highly specific and somewhat arcane. This doesn't have the long-term potential of a Cheers, a Blue Bloods, or a M*A*S*H. The producers of The Walking Dead (another series with a highly specific storyline) have chosen to carry on far beyond their show's natural lifespan. The producers of The Americans would be well advised not to make this mistake.

Season five begins in 1984, when Chernenko was the top man in the Kremlin. This was immediately before the Gorbachev era thawing between the superpowers. One key element of The Americans is the premise that the USSR and America chronically mistrust each other, and are in constant risk of nuclear conflict. That tension abated after 1985; and 1985 may be the logical ending point of The Americans.

But for now, The Americans is still awesome. (I was tempted to throw something at the TV screen in rage when the hour-and-ten-minute premiere ended, much too quickly.) 

And whatever the Trump-obsessed may tell you, The Americans is not a story about our age and its comparatively petty concerns of identity-group politics and Internet-manufactured outrage. The Americans is a story about a time when the United States and the Soviet Union stood constantly on the brink of mutual destruction. 

It is an era well worth remembering for its own sake, whatever your feelings about the present.