I’ve enjoyed The Americans, recently broadcast over a thirteen week run on ITV. If you do not know the show, it’s set in the early 1980s USA, before the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and depicts the antics of so-called Illegals – sleeper Soviet spies who’ve lived decades in America as Americans. They are in deep cover, entrusted by Moscow to do dirty deeds that other KGB agents can’t do – mainly because the FBI knows and tails most KGB officers.
The illegal Americans are Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (played by Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell). In Russian in the 60s they had been paired as the perfect partnership, then ‘married’ and sent to live as husband and wife in Washington DC. At the time of the show they have two children, a son (about ten years old) and a daughter, thirteen. The Jennings run their own travel agency – so overtly they are as much agents as they are covertly.
The show follows their attempts to turn regular Americans, to run them as agents for Moscow and thus gather secret information. And when necessary, Philip and Elizabeth bump off people they are unable to control in less violent ways. They do all these things both day and night.
So far so good. But – there has to be a but – how did they manage to raise children for over a decade, tuning into Radio Russia (or whatever it’s called) and leaving the kids alone at night, without a childminder (for none is in evidence) as they do their spying? In my experience, children have the habit of waking up at inopportune moments, becoming ill, asking difficult questions. Did they not once wake up to an empty house (I’ll get back to that)?
Then new neighbours move in. After introducing themselves, Stan Beeman (played by Noah Emmerich) announces that he’s an FBI agent. Why? Is he bragging? Surely keeping such a secretive job secret should be … secret? Stan then becomes suspicious about Philip and Elizabeth because they have a car similar to that spotted in an incident but those suspicions are allayed after a midnight search of that car’s trunk.
Not only do Philip and Elizabeth need to come and go at all hours without disturbing their children, they now have to do the same without alerting a nosey FBI agent. I’m sorry, folks, it just doesn’t work like that. Children are not commodities you can turn off and on when it suits the parents (or the plot). And an FBI agent who keeps equally unsociable hours is bound to notice something odd. All this is a pity because it spoils an otherwise great drama.
As for the characters: the Soviet agents – including those in the Russian Embassy – all seem so much more personable than their FBI counterparts, even when ordering a hit. The main “good guy”, FBI agent Stan comes across far too boorish – and how Nina (works in the Russian Embassy) falls for him… (but there is a twist to that thread).
And finally, in the last episode, we see the daughter waking up at 2.00 a.m. and meeting her mother as she exits the basement, a guilty expression on her face. This is obviously an incident necessary to further the plot in Season Two. For me, ignoring that this sort of thing is likely to happen until it’s needed for the story takes away some of the programme’s verisimilitude. Season One is now over and ITV has apparently bought Season Two for showing in 2014. Despite my concerns, I can’t wait.