Three years ago, when future lingerie model Anna Chapman and her nine comrades were arrested in the Northeast for espionage, many Americans’ reaction was similar to mine – dude, I thought the Cold War was over, Russian spies?
Drawing from the Oscar race momentum of the Iran hostage drama film, Argo, which shows people in bad suits and facial hair fighting against foreign infiltrators into truth, justice and the American way, FX Network’s new show, The Americans looks like a huge hit. Set in 1981, no longer Felicity or Waitress Keri Russell’s wavy brunette hair and steel eyes are matched with scene stealing fake husband Matthew Rhys as Soviet Sleeper living in Northern Virginia with two clueless kids and a lot of bad intentions. Unlike Anna Chapman and her garish gulag of Russkie goofballs that were caught and exchanged for a handful of double agents living in Russia, the television hammer and sycle couple seem a lot more dangerous.
To say like is intimidating art with the new series, The Americans isn’t hyperbole. The creator of the show is former CIA Agent turned screenwriter (and I thought all ex spooks became right-wing radio show hosts) Joe Weisberg. By taking Russian spying out of the era of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, the show reminds us of how precarious American and Russian ways of life were thirty-years ago. The premise of The Americans is Russell and Rhys are recruited as motherland mutt teenagers. They become Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings, live blissful lives through the swinging seventies, have two children, then are “awakened” by their politboro bosses in the early eighties while Fleetwood Mac and Phil Collins soundtrack their mysteriously murky missions.
The FBI and CIA tracked the Russian spy ring busted in 2010 for over seven years. They used the high tech social media bumbles of those sleeper agents plus a defecting KGB Colonel to prevent the Cold War from unthawing. The details how ridiculous and audacious those spies were made many wonder is espionage was even viable in this day when Chinese high school students are hacking into the New York Times and Pentagon computer systems.
The Americans on Fx has a lot of the potential. In an overlong but overwhelmingly dramatic ninety-minute pilot, it was difficult to even understand why Russell and Rhys’ portrayal of the Jennings were even important until the final half hour when their wicked ways become crystal clear. Hiding in plain sight is a lot more efficient that a Robert Ludlum spy novel or some over the top James Bond movie.
Information not military might is power in the real-life and fictional spy game. By stripping away the easy technology like smart phones and 4G internet, The Americans makes good drama out of what could be inside that nice, normal family that lives across the street. Russell is good, but her laconic loyalty to the Soviet cause is stolen, scene by scene by Rhys’ brooding, almost heroic want to love and live free from harm. Who knew that Soviet Spies could be lovable and rootable? Both actors could become major stars off of this, even more than Anna Chapman, the real-life Natasha of three years past, now living the Surreal Life-like existence in Moscow.