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The Americans: the anti-nostalgia trip

By Bert Ehrmann

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Fort Wayne Reader

2015-01-15


Nostalgia can be a tricky thing. Movies and TV series that deal in the past tend to get the overall big picture right but fudge the everyday little details of life.

It's like how the show The Goldbergs handles the past. That series presents a fantasized version of the 1980s where everything that happened in that decade happened at the same time, where every movie that was released that decade came out on the same that day kids were buying their first Ataris and Nintendos.

And having grown up in that decade I can attest that I too get nostalgic for things that happened "back in the day." I watch series like The Goldbergs and remember things like the kinds of furniture people used to have, to the designs of the wallpaper on kitchen walls.

But realistically each decade is about more than furniture and wallpaper and video games and movies. Every decade is like every other decade in that it's full of change with people looking towards an uncertain future. And that change is a constant through each decade, to the point where what we're like at the start of a decade is very much different from what we're like at the end of it.

That's one of the reasons the TV series The Americans is so interesting. That show too takes place in the nostalgia friendly 1980s yet it's not a nostalgic show. It doesn't present that decade in any form of idealized light and instead seems to take joys on focusing on the bad parts of the decade rather than just the good.

There's so much of a lack of nostalgia in The Americans that I doubt that anyone watching that show would want to spend too much time in their version of the 1980s.

The Americans takes place in the early 1980s in Washington DC where two Soviet spies posing as a married couple, Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys), have hidden themselves and ingrained their lives into the culture around them. They have kids and live in suburbia but are really sleeper agents who spring into action when called to via messages from Russia.

And their missions can be anything from blackmail to stealing secrets and even murder. And that's another strength of The Americans; Philip and Elizabeth are the villains of the series. They actively work to undermine the security and stability of the US. And rather than the audience rooting for FBI agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) to find them out and send them to prison, we instead root for the two to escape and live to fight another day.

Elizabeth is much more interested in "the cause" and is prepared to do almost anything to bring the US down that she can. Husband Philip has had to become a bit more realistic, realizing that since they now have children whatever they do in spying for the Soviets not puts more than just the two of them in danger; it puts the whole family in danger.

The first season of the show was focused on what makes two people a couple; is it the act of marriage or is it something else? And the second was about just what it takes for someone to do things they'd never dream of doing in the cause for what they see as a greater good. The upcoming third season looks to be an examination of what a country should be allowed to ask from people like Philip and Elizabeth. At what point is what the state wants too much?

It's all this that makes The Americans a kind of anti-nostalgia show.
The series almost never plays to the "wasn't the past wonderful" vibe as so many shows set in the past do. Instead The Americans chooses to focus on all sorts of real life things that still affect us today from infidelity to trust to worries about the future along with things that were 1980s specific like fear about the Soviets to worries about an all-out nuclear war between the US and USSR.

The third season of The Americans is set to premiere January 28 at 10PM on FX. Visit me online at DangerousUniverse.com.

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