Tonight marks the season finale of original FX series The Americans, a show framed around two Soviet sleeper spies living in the suburbs of D.C. in the Cold War era, starring Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys. It’s recently been renewed for a second season, so if you haven’t seen it make sure to catch up on it via Netflix, Hulu or your neighbor’s cable box. To update you on what’s happened so far in the show’s first season, and to share with you his worthy opinion on it (as a Russian-American who may or may not be a Soviet sleeper spy), we got the always-hilarious Lakutis to review the show for us. Lakutis, a rapper on Heems’ (Das Racist) Greedhead label, released an EP through Mishka last year (download here) and is currently working on its follow-up. You can also peep his Tumblr here.
When I first saw a commercial for The Americans, I remembered 2010, when everyone was going crazy about Anna Chapman, one of about a dozen or so Russian spies busted by the FBI after living under assumed identities in the U.S. Chapman, born Anna Vasil’yevna Kushchyenko, was the hot one and got a lot of press at the time, even the cover of the Russian Maxim. It turns out The Americans is in fact inspired by this network of sleeper agents dubbed “the illegals,” which is funny as hell the more you learn about both.
One thing borrowed from the real “illegals” that makes the show interesting is that the spies are assigned to live as a married couple and even have kids together, but the similarities kind of end there. The real “illegals” were by most accounts awful spies—an acquaintance of one even remarked how weird it was that a purported Philly native would have a “thick Russian accent.” Meanwhile, the spy couple on The Americans speak perfect English and are constantly doing some OD crazy spy stuff and getting beat up without so much as taking a day off. In fact, everyone on the show speaks terrible Russian with the exception of the double agent Nina, played by the smoking-hot Annet Mahendru (who’s fluent in Russian, German and Hindi). The difference is so stark, that when she speaks Russian it feels a lot like when your roommate with a job comes home to you and your other loser friend, who have been smoking weed and farting all day with zero ventilation, and opens the window. You forgot just how bad it all was until someone reminds you that there’s a real world out there. The “illegals” were a bunch of inept Russians who could barely mask their origins. The “Americans” are so completely, absurdly American that it’s a constant struggle to believe their (mostly) unwavering support for their motherland.
The potential of a show with such a great premise lies in the opportunity to create friction with culture clash. I’m reminded of the tavern scene in Inglorious Basterds, where the characters are found out as imposters because one of them holds up three fingers the American way instead of the German way. Once, when I worked in a restaurant, one of the waiters asked the two new Russian waitresses why they didn’t put a top bun on their staff lunch burgers and they replied that it was “too much bread.” Russians, as a rule, eat their sandwiches open-faced. These are the types of moments, that when added up, form a large part of the immigrant experience, and it’s a shame that this show squanders the chance to delve into these subtleties and potentially educate American viewers about themselves, Russians and the nature of culture itself. Yes, I understand that the point is that they are theoretically so well-trained as to be indistinguishable from the real thing, but what kind of cheap shortcut is that? Also isn’t that where the art and the suspension of disbelief should come in?
Still, for all its faults the show does have some things going for it: Philip and Elizabeth’s constant renegotiation of just how real their marriage is; Noah Emmerich’s portrayal of Stan Beeman, the FBI agent with the dark past (complete with facial tick); some of the zanier missions the couple go on (complete with ridiculous mustaches and outfits); and the aforementioned Annet Mahendru, who can actually act and speak Russian. There’s a lot of potential in this show, and it’ll be interesting to see where the finale leaves us. I’m definitely not in love with The Americans yet, but then I didn’t really like the first season of The Wire either (cue hate mail).