*The Americans*

by on May 18, 2013 at 4:42 pm in Television, Uncategorized | Permalink

Natasha and I have finished watching the first season, and I am pleased to report it is one of the few TV series I like.  It pretends to be about “two Soviet KGB officers posing as an American married couple in the suburbs of Washington D.C. in order to spy on the United States.”  But it’s actually about a) Russian mothers having to raise their children in the United States, b) what a marriage actually consists of (spoilers in that link), and c) to what are we loyal?  It captures the 1980s uncannily well.

TV viewing for this summer will likely include the full-length version of Fanny and Alexander, the Danish political thriller Borgen, and season two of Enlightened.

1 Pizza Man May 18, 2013 at 5:36 pm

I, for one, would like to know what other fiction TV series Tyler enjoys.

2 Tyler Cowen May 18, 2013 at 5:41 pm

The Sopranos, Battlestar Galactica, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Homeland, Ali G, Monty Python would be a few, some of Seinfeld too.

3 Pizza Man May 18, 2013 at 5:49 pm

Wow, thanks for the reply. Good picks. I was hoping you’d mention the Inspector Morse series and its continuations. I have an unreasonable amount of affection for those shows and was hoping to be validated by someone much more sophisticated than I!

4 Horhe May 19, 2013 at 10:11 am

You should try Dollhouse… despite a slow start, the series was very well made and touching, with some very good character development. Can’t recommend it more highly. For good soapboxing, try Boston Legal. Also, Lord of the Rings in space, aka Babylon 5, even though it hasn’t aged very well.

5 ad*m May 18, 2013 at 5:40 pm

More importantly, Americans is the only current show that my wife and I can watch *together*. The only thread that makes me squirm in my seat is the one about Martha, and it is getting worse, but I guess that shows the quality. Finally, I know I should not, but I admit I am still watching for subliminal messages from the writer/director that the Soviet Union wasn’t so bad.

6 Al May 18, 2013 at 5:47 pm

If anything, the writers do a good job of implying the bureaucratic messiness and disciplinary lapses of the KGB.

7 Yancey Ward May 18, 2013 at 6:04 pm

The only thread that makes me squirm in my seat is the one about Martha, and it is getting worse


Give up the mistress you are taking advantage of, and the squirming will stop.

8 shecky May 19, 2013 at 7:37 pm

I find the actual spy stuff to be pretty eye rollingly disappointing. A sleeper cell that never sleeps, KGB outshines the FBI in professionalism, the Martha/Nina threads, it’s all too much to suspend disbelief. At least they didn’t go full James Bond on us.

Gregory could have been fleshed out to be a far more interesting and complex character.

The treatment of marriage, family, and loyalty does make for some redemption.

9 Yancey Ward May 18, 2013 at 6:06 pm

As for Tyler’s comments, I agree on all of them. It is the best new show I have seen in a quite a while- probably since The Wire shorted out.

10 Todd May 18, 2013 at 6:22 pm

The 5 hour “Fanny and Alexander” is terrific. The most notable addition (while everyone has more screen time, of course) is the greater development of Erland Josephson’s character and the storyline in his house/shop.

11 Ted Craig May 18, 2013 at 7:41 pm

Did you catch Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake?

12 Olaf May 18, 2013 at 8:27 pm

I thought it had some sloppiness around the edges. No match for something like The Wire. The 80ies angle indeed at least shows some dedication (except for her hair) and the marriage struggles and fatherland issues sometimes do come across as authentic and moving. I like the 80ies music best, triggered some flashbacks and music purchases…I’ll stay the course I guess but haven’t recommended it heavily.
Can’t wait for “Girls” season 2…

13 Widmerpool May 18, 2013 at 10:35 pm

Agree “Girls” excellent – season 2 was very good.

14 shecky May 19, 2013 at 6:41 pm

After two seasons, I’ve given up on any kind of payoff. I’m surrounded by enough awful/needy/sociopath people in real life to find any enjoyment from the awful/needy/sociopath people in Girls. However, if you ever need affirmation that privilege is wasted on the privileged, Girls is the show where you can get it.

15 Owen May 29, 2013 at 5:49 pm

Girls is an interesting show in that, for me at least, a large chunk of the value comes from the notion that it is a parody of hipster culture. We are invited to look at what the young people of Williamsburg believe to be their trials and tribulations, and we are meant to laugh and cry and scratch our heads at the sheer ridiculousness of it. These people have no perspective on life, no sense that their problems are utterly trivial or that they are not unique little snowflakes at the center of their own little universe.

But the show must be *in on it* with us, and I increasingly get the sense that it is not. I feel like Lena Dunham actually believes that she is writing world-altering fiction, like her characters’ stories somehow bring out some great truth about modern life.

When Hannah shacked up with the attractive older guy in the middle of the last season, my problem was not that he found her attractive but that he found her interesting. She’s absolutely not, and the show’s increasing refusal to admit this makes me think that Dunham’s perspective is much closer to Hannah’s than it had seemed before.

16 Barkley Rosser May 18, 2013 at 9:08 pm

My Russian-born wife, Marina, and I also enjoyed the show, despite its squrimy moments (Martha, oog). It would appear to have two inspirations. One is the identification, arrests, and expulsions of 10 actual Soviet/Russian sleeper agents in the US 3 years ago. What is curious is that none of those came anywhere near the couple in the show in terms of either competence or the seriousness of what they did. I would not be surprised if the Russians did not view the US as having done them a favor by removing costly but useless agents from the game.

The other is a popular Russian show, “TASS Announces…” which shows KGB agents from that era who are here and who heroically foil various supposedly dastardly US plots. The competence of the couple in The Americans seems more modeled on the TASS Announces people than on the actual sleeper agents who were here, who seem to have been largely doofs.

There is also the odd business of the latest Russian arrrest of a US agent, Ryan Fogle, caught supposedly wearing some fakey wig that made me immediately think of the husband with the icky Martha, along with a lot of hokey and seriously out of date spy equipment (a compass?). Some are suggesting that this stuff was planted on him after they arrested him to make him look ridiculous and to play up to the Russian audience for TASS Announces, particularly as the wig apparently strongly resembles one the Soviets took off a spy arrested in 1986, Michael Sellers.

17 Mark Thorson May 18, 2013 at 9:29 pm

Ah, the Russians made such a fuss over catching that guy because they wanted to boost the ratings of one of their TV shows. Now that news item makes some sense.

18 Barkley Rosser May 18, 2013 at 9:11 pm

Meant to say “Russians view the US as having done them a favor” at end of first paragraph.

19 Widmerpool May 18, 2013 at 10:29 pm

I’m afraid Enlightened will disappoint. Couldn’t shake free from the shackles of conventional Hollywood liberalism.

20 derek May 18, 2013 at 11:51 pm

I don’t think you’re getting what you’re supposed to out of Enlightened, but even if one is watching it for social commentary, Amy’s political viewpoint is not portrayed as particularly cogent.

21 Widmerpool May 19, 2013 at 7:59 am

The “social commentary” would have been far more compelling had her employer not turned out to be so cartoonishly evil.

22 Aaron Boyden May 18, 2013 at 10:32 pm

I like the portrayal of the KGB as being afraid that the U.S. was looking for some excuse to attack the Soviet Union; as I understand it, that was something the Soviets were very concerned about early in the Reagan administration, however disinclined Americans may be to realize how often the rest of the world perceives us as scary warmongers. On the other hand, the frequent use of sex as a way of manipulating sources is apparently not very realistic (bribery and recruiting the ideologically sympathetic is supposed to be far more common, because far more reliable and effective, than trying to seduce people), but I think I’m willing to chalk that one up to poetic license.

23 prior_approval May 19, 2013 at 2:35 am

The Soviets were notably humorless and paranoid.

Which is why this open mic slip up was not seen as just a bit of that old folksy Reagan charm during an election year – ‘”My fellow Americans, I’m pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.”‘ August 1984

24 Yancey Ward May 19, 2013 at 10:27 am

So, PA was a Soviet sleeper agent. Makes perfect sense!

25 prior_approval May 20, 2013 at 6:47 am

Sorry to disappoint you – but three members of my immediate family (including both my mother and father) worked for three letter agencies, though one of those agencies didn’t officially exist until 1975. Another family member worked for a federal financial three letter agency.

In other words, when I turned down the recruitment effort (what, no 3 letter federal agency has ever tried to recruit you? – maybe you needed to have a different background), it wasn’t because I worried about any Soviet connections (though one relative was involved in a certain tunnel thing back in the 50s in Berlin, being the relative who had studied Russian at Harvard – not many details on that from him, however. Or anybody, if this link is to be trusted – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Gold ).

26 prior_approval May 19, 2013 at 2:40 am

So much for instant responses.

‘On the other hand, the frequent use of sex as a way of manipulating sources is apparently not very realistic’

Actually, it is was Stasi that used this technique remarkably well, though partially because East and West Germans shared a lot of similarities.

‘Markus Wolf, 83, who helped to oversee the growth of East Germany’s espionage network and once wrote that he wanted to be remembered for “perfecting the use of sex in spying,” died of undisclosed causes Nov. 9 at his apartment in Berlin.

Mr. Wolf led the foreign intelligence division of the East German Ministry for State Security, known as the Stasi, during much of the Cold War.

“Misha” Wolf’s impact was undeniable. He was said to have been remarkably effective in stealing West Germany’s weekly intelligence reports and was credited with planting thousands of moles in Western capitals, NATO headquarters and essential industries in science and technology.’ http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/11/09/AR2006110901967.html

27 Brett Champion May 19, 2013 at 9:37 am

That the Soviets were actually afraid of the US even surprised Ronald Reagan. In his autobiography, Reagan mentions several times the extent to which he was surprised by how much of a threat Soviet leaders viewed the US to be. He says several times in the book that he took the time to tell his Soviet interlocutors that the US had no interest in attacking the Soviet Union or its allies and that the defense build up was solely for defensive purposes. Anyone who’s studied international relations would not, however, be surprised that the Soviets didn’t buy it. Heck, even America’s closest allies (Britain, Canada, etc.) probably don’t have an entirely positive view of US military power, and not just because American use of that power in other places is sometimes harmful to their national interests. That would at least puzzle, if not outright offend, many Americans, but it is a perfectly rational reaction.

28 Steve C. May 18, 2013 at 11:17 pm

Must see tv in our home. Sure there’s some poetic license, but the characters are well defined and the general tenor is good. Music, yes it takes one back. Although, I would argue that the best use of music was in the sadly short “Life on Mars”. At least they had the grace to end the series. Even if the ending was a bit goofy.

29 Patriot May 19, 2013 at 2:04 am

B and C are accurate, but A would be more accurate if you framed it in terms of nationalists rather than “Russian mothers”.

30 Patriot May 19, 2013 at 2:07 am

(it’s a great show, and I watched it every Wednesday from pilot to finale. The best episode was — hands down — Gregory’s last stand.)

31 Axa May 19, 2013 at 6:06 am

Sigh……for moment tought it would be show about her http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anna_Chapman That would be 100% more interesting and watchable.

32 Lance Knobel May 20, 2013 at 1:06 pm

Borgen is non pareil. But it most definitely isn’t a political “thriller”. Part of the appeal is that it deals with the generally mundane aspects of government. I’ll be very curious to hear your take.

If you get a taste for Danish TV, that may lead you to so-called Nordic Noir: The Killing and The Bridge. Wonderful. Don’t be deceived by the so-so US remakes.

33 David J May 20, 2013 at 2:51 pm

The Americans is a great pick. Sons of Anarchy is *very* similar in that it’s ostensibly about a California outlaw biker gang, but it’s really about how being a part of the gang brings people together and tears them apart.

34 Xmas May 21, 2013 at 4:31 am

Hannibal and The Following have both been good, but gruesome. I think The Following was a one season show…

Hannibal has been good as a psychological thriller. I have some problems with certain aspects of the show which I’m loathe to point out directly. It is something that’s been going on in Hollywood for the past few years, and it is something that once you see, you can never unsee ever again.

Click here, if you want to ruin TV and movies for yourself

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