I have been bingeing “The Americans” recently. It’s an incredibly bingeable show on two fronts: easy to binge, and rewarding to binge.
A fan of the first three seasons, I deliberately allowed several episodes of season four to pile up on my DVR. The final few minutes of each episode, coupled with the “scenes from next week” tease are some of the factors that create an exceptionally rewarding experience. Additional reward comes paying close attention to the details the show, catching subtle hints about the characters as well as the time period: before today’s modern surveillance technology, there was espionage done largely done in person, via disguises of clothing and personality.
Set during the Cold War, “The Americans” revolves around Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell), two KGB spies posing as a married American couple in suburban Washington, D.C. The series opens in in 1980, shortly after Ronald Reagan is elected president. The current season takes place in 1983.
Phillip and Elizabeth are travel agents by day, and like any other suburban parents in the 1980s. In typical scenes from inside the home, the parents yell to the kids that dinner – tuna casserole – is ready and the kids need to finish up the last round of their video game – usually Atari. They drive Mustangs and Pontiacs, wear turtlenecks, pleated pants, and jackets from Land’s End and Members Only.
When undercover, they drive a different fleet of cars from the 1970s, a slew of wigs and glasses. Elizabeth wears different makeup and Phillip alters his facial hair.
A lot of these details are subtle, many of them are not a part of the main plot but are used to reinforce details such as US-Soviet tensions. For example, playing on a TV in the background while the family eats dinner, is a news report of current events from the day, especially ones which further inflamed the Cold War. The constant use of period-specific details makes the show so enthralling. And genuine.
In another scene, Elizabeth comes home and is greeted by her family, in the living room watching TV. On it, Ronald Reagan is speaking about SDI, the Strategic Defense Initiative. These scenes both continue the plot and anchor the show to specific dates (the SDI talk was on March 23, 1983).
Also on the TV are ads from the era. One afternoon, Henry Jennings and Matthew Beeman, teenage neighbors, are somewhat clandestinely drinking beer with a TV on in the background. Their attention was drawn suddenly to an ad there.
It was Brooke Shields in the iconic Calvin Klein ad. The one where she says at the end, “You want to know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing.” As discussed a few weeks ago, this was one of the most iconic ads of the 1980s.
In an interview with AdWeek, “The Americans” show runners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields discuss selecting this ad because it fits their “less is more” approach to including pop culture as a prop in the show.
As they conceptualized the scene, they thought about what teenage boys in the 1980s would talk about. “What we want is for it to always be integrated into the show so that there’s never the sense that the show is stopping for some fun pop culture reference, but rather they come out through the characters’ experiences.”
“The Americans” airs on FX on Wednesday nights.