Fantastic History #68: The Americans by Catherine Schaff-Stump

I was alive in the 1980s. I remember Michael Jackson and shoulder pads and Pac-Man. Recently, I finished viewing the entirety of the series The Americans. Because of this series, I decided to write an entry for Fantastic History about judging the historical accuracy of a time when you were alive as it is imitated in fiction.

What is The Americans? Glad you asked. The Americans is a spy show about Soviet illegals passing as American citizens, which takes place in the Reagan era of the 1980s, when the Cold War was being renewed by a bunch of Hawkish Republicans, just before the Soviet Union fell apart. The Soviet illegals pass as citizens of the U.S., having assumed the identities of people who died as children. Philip and Elizabeth Jennings are the main characters. They have two children, Paige and Henry, who do not know about their parents’ service to Russia. To make things even more spicy, their new neighbor across the street just happens to be an FBI agent, Stan Beeman.

I like SpyFy a lot. There’s the question of whether a show like The Americans perpetuates the fantasy of what it means to be a spy, and it does. There is more waiting around than a lot of spy shows, and zero exotic gadgets. There is random, grisly, and accidental death. Make no mistake, though. Philip and Elizabeth have a professional wig stylist and a make-up artist serving Mother Russia on hand, because ain’t no way they can do this themselves. Also, the lengths they go to to keep Stan and the kids in the dark are pretty dramatic, but played up in ways entirely unrealistic. The show has heavy elements of realism, but rests squarely in the realm of spy fantasy.

How do the show’s producers do with reproducing the 80s? I’m not detecting a lot of anomalies or anachronisms. The clothes look pretty good. The tech is about the right level, with rotary phones and tvs without remotes. Product placement and packages are vintage. The decorating scheme is the right 80s palette. The cars are all boats. On the whole, it looks like an effort has been made, even down to the travel agency the Jennings run as their cover, and the TWA posters.

Reproducing a historical era that viewers and readers remember is a way to bring someone out of a fantasy, but The Americans keeps me in the show. I’d recommend it if you have an 80s itch to scratch.