Television is taking us to periods we’d like to remember fondly—the genteel English estates of the '20s on Downton Abbey or the rakish '60s on Mad Men. Defunct shows that touched on less-than-fond times, such as That '70s Show, dwelled on disco, not inflation. TV doesn’t dwell on the dour or the Depression.
So from the start, FX’s The Americans is different. It’s set in 1981, in the days after Ronald Reagan takes office but before “Morning in America” optimism is to be found. It’s a Cold War drama taking place at a time which generally isn’t seen as an inflection point in U.S.-Soviet tensions, but which was. Set decades after the Berlin Airlift or the Rosenberg trial, it’s not the worst of times but it’s still a time rife with nukes on alert and spies on the prowl. Detente has given way to Reaganesque rollback of Communism. And it’s this moment that makes FX so provocative—and for conservatives, so satisfying.
The show centers on Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell), who are the charming family in your subdivision—except that they love caviar, deplore decadence, and oh, are Soviet spies. Ripped from their families, trained to speak in perfect American accents and raise their two all-American kids (who don’t know of their parents’ double lives), they’re ratcheting up their spying now that America has elected Reagan, whom Elizabeth calls “a madman.”
Of course, we know that Reagan wasn’t berserk, and that’s what makes the show read like one of Grover Norquist’s projects to canonize the 40th president. The Soviets are scared. And we know it ends happily with arms cuts and that wall really being torn down.
The FBI of The Americans isn’t putting taps on the Kennedys' phones. Hoover’s petty crusades are over. The place is invigorated by a new counterintelligence section aimed at deep cover spies. So brisk is the new pace under Reagan that there’s some griping among agents that meetings are starting earlier. One of them, Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), lives across the street from our lovely couple, which makes all the hey-we-brought-you-brownies moments a tad awkward.
If the hagiography of the Gipper was too subtle, real-life historical figures like Reagan Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger—vilified in his day for expanding the defense budget—are not only references, but characters. The Jenningses blackmail the Weinbergers’ maid into placing a bug in their home before an important meeting with the defense minister, and Mrs. Weinberger makes a kindly appearance as her husband’s study is turned into a KGB listening post. The ratings for the show dropped off sharply for the second episode, so let's hope we’ll get to see loving portrayals of William Casey and Alexander Haig.
Paranoid thrillers have been a staple of Cold War and War on Terror life, whether it’s The Manchurian Candidate or Homeland. But both of those iconic works tempered their anticommunism with domestic criticism. In Manchurian Candidate, the Soviet-Red China plot to assassinate a Republican presidential nominee is thick with anti-McCarthyite themes. And Homeland balances its anti-Jihadist thrust with a whole storyline built around a drone-happy CIA director-turned-vice president who, in a display of moral equivalence, is every bit the bad guy as the elusive Abu Nazir.
In The Americans, there’s none of that, just a celebration of American values. Phil considers defecting to America, which he lauds in cheeky but sincere tones. “The food’s pretty terrific. There’s plenty of closet space.” We like the Soviet spies only because they were created by a monstrous totalitarian system and are struggling to break out. (Elizabeth was not only programmed to be a spy but was raped during her training.) Keri Russell was given her start in the chick drama Felicity by J.J. Abrams, and he cast her Mission: Impossible III, where she showed her high-kick bona fides.
By contrast, the America of the Gipper is free, recognizes the Soviet threat, and is even progressive. Beeman has a minority FBI agent partner, Chris Amador (Maximiliano Hernandez), who offers proof that the FBI is dropping is crew-cut ways and becoming less cloistered, and the show notes that “there are only like two or three of them so they can’t get fired.”
Joe Weisberg, the series creator, is a former CIA agent-turned-novelist, which is surprising because The Americans lacks the verisimilitude of a Homeland, let alone a Zero Dark Thirty. It’s cartoony and a bit cheap. The sets are lacking and no one sprang for period music. (You ache for "My Sharona" to be played over a fight scene.) In its Manichaean view of the world, it’s more like World War II movies than the nuanced thrillers of the postwar era. It’s an unalloyed cheer for America, which shouldn’t be that surprising coming on a network that caters to male passions—FX’s programming also boasts the motorcycle-gang drama Sons of Anarchy. The world of The Americans is stylish karate chops and disguises, but it’s best enjoyed as a simple morality tale—and one conservatives should especially relish.