Like HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” and AMC’s “Mad Men,” FX’s “The Americans” features elements of traditional television drama in the context of a historical setting. While it is too early to tell if the series will match the critical and commercial success of those dramas, the pilot gets the show off to a promising start. Focusing on a sleeper cell family of KGB agents living a typical suburban lifestyle in northern Virginia, “The Americans,” similar to the Oscar-nominated film “Argo,” returns its audience to the early 1980s (For more on “Argo,” see http://popculturemeetshistory.blogspot.com/2012/10/ben-afflecks-argo-and-iranian-hostage.html.
Opening shortly following Ronald Reagan’s inauguration in 1981, the show reminds us of how the US/Soviet conflict dominated American life a generation ago. Characters discuss the Communist threat in much the same way we discuss the danger from Islamic radicals today. Toward the end of the pilot, the FBI declares war on Russian spies in the homeland, with the Deputy Attorney General instructing a room of counterintelligence agents that “We are going to war. It is a war that will be fought quietly by the men and women in this room. It will not be short…and it will not be easy.” Sounds more than a little similar to the Bush/Cheney rhetoric in the aftermath of 9/11.
Like “Argo,” “The Americans” captures the feel of the period. We see one of the spies’ children writing a paper for school on (gasp!) a typewriter. Personal computers would shortly thereafter become a middle-class staple as Steve Jobs’ Apple invaded American homes. In lieu of its typical “Man of the Year,” Time declared the computer “Machine of the Year” in 1982. Rotary phones and the “CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite” also make appearances, the latter on a television too small for to be available for purchase today. Phil Collin’s hit “In the Air Tonight,” released in 1981, is heard during a key scene and is likely an homage to the song’s airing during the pilot of “Miami Vice,” (1985), a quintessential 1980s show.
The space race plays an important supporting role in the episode. At one point during a family breakfast, the mother, played by Keri Russell, remarks that going to the moon “isn’t everything. Just getting into space is an accomplishment.” Of course, the USSR launched the first man into space in 1961, while the U.S. eventually won the battle to reach the moon when Apollo 11 landed at Tranquility Base in 1969. Father and son later attend a celebration of the Apollo-Soyuz mission of 1975, a barely remembered détente-era joint space mission between the United States and the Soviet Union.
Détente came to an end after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and Reagan’s election in 1980. Rejecting the more conciliatory policies of presidents Nixon, Ford, and Carter, the “Gipper” instigated a massive defense buildup and upped the rhetorical ante, calling out the Soviet Union as “the Evil Empire.” This dynamic is visible when Russell’s character meets with her KGB controller, who tells her that the U.S. has elected a madman as president and “that the risks are going to get greater.” Of course, the Cold War reached its tensest point since the Cuban Missile Crisis during Reagan’s first term, only to end suddenly without any shots fired by the end of the decade. I’ll be watching and will report back on other historical influences on subsequent episodes of the show when relevant.