These days, watching TV is a lot like running a triage. With more TV dramas than ever before, we only have the time to let the best ones through, giving each drama a few episodes apiece before deciding its fate. There are those we dismiss on the strength (or lack thereof) of a single episode and those we stick with for a few episodes hoping it will realise its potential. Some get through and become regular viewing while others we leave to pass away quietly next to the wheezing corpses of Revolution, Sons of Anarchy and 666 Park Avenue.
Which is why it was such a pleasant surprise to be so entertained right from the off by The Americans on ITV last weekend!
For those who haven’t seen it yet, The Americans is a Cold War drama series set in 1980s Washington D.C. It follows Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, a seemingly ordinary married couple with two kids who are actually highly-trained KGB spies.
It gripped from the off with an intriguing concept and adrenalin-fuelled action as the couple deal with the task of kidnapping a Russian defector, throwing him onto a ship headed back to the Mother Country and all the while keeping their identities secret from the world around them, their FBI neighbour and, most importantly, their own children.
But under the immediate attractions of back alley fights with counter intelligence and men locked in car trunks mere metres away from neighbours borrowing cups of sugar, it’s the struggle of the two main characters and their sense of identity that really makes the show tick. This couple have been living in the US since the 1960s, talking nothing but English and giving the outward behaviour of being ordinary patriotic Americans. After so many years of school runs, baseball games and mouthing along to the national anthem can you really stay true to the country you’ve not seen for twenty years? Have they spent so long pretending to be American that it’s no longer an act? This struggle permeates everything they do, from the moment you see them enjoy the luxury of air conditioning for the first time to listening to their son wax lyrical about having an Apollo astronaut visit the school. ‘Getting to the moon is great,’ the mother says, ‘but it’s getting into space at all that’s the real achievement.’ You get the sense that doubts have been clouding them for a long time and, as we join them in their story, things are about to come to a head when they learn that if they turned themselves in they’ll not only be relocated by the CIA to a safe location but get a warm golden hello in the shape of $3 million. Each.
What else can I say? The Americans is a rare achievement, a balanced espionage thriller with a lot of heart and brains that lesser writers could have made so mawkish and awful. No doubt about it, this one’s a keeper. At least I hope so. Don’t let me look like a fool, here, guys!