FX is really killing it these days. They have three channels where before they had one, great comedies like Louie and Archer, and an all-star stable of dramas like Sons of Anarchy and the new Fargo. Rounding out those dramas and currently hitting its stride in Season 2 is The Americans, an intensely emotional show starring Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell as two undercover KGB spies living in 80s Washington D.C.
Entering the fold at the tail end of TV’s obsession with anti-heroes, The Americans is a show that yet again forces viewers (well, American viewers, for whom the show is made) to accept generally “bad” people as its protagonists. What’s unique about its approach, however, is that Rhys’ Phillip and Russell’s Elizabeth are not only undercover, but also undercover married with two American kids none the wiser about their true identity and marital issues that would put the saga of Eminem and Kim Mathers to shame.
That makes a show about undercover KGB spies immediately different—heading in it seems like you’re just watching another spy drama, but a great deal of the show is spent directly and indirectly highlighting the incredibly complex and strained relationship between its two leads. When your night job includes putting on an endless carousel of disguises and often seducing members of the opposite sex (in one case even jumping into another faux-marriage), suddenly the day life cover of two married travel agents with perfectly healthy children becomes difficult to maintain. No surprise there.
On top of that, viewers are forced to believe that the two leads’ American accents (Rhys is actually Welsh) are in the show a product of the characters putting in 20 years’ worth of practice, despite growing up in Russia. This is where things get a little weird for me personally, as a first-generation American who can perfectly understand all of the show’s many scenes spoken in Russian. When I raised the issue of Phillip and Elizabeth’s flawless American accents with my mom, a Russian immigrant who came to the states at age 32 in 1989, she scoffed immediately. “It’s impossible for them to have completely squashed out their Russian accents,” she said.
Unfortunately, this ruins the authenticity of the show for me to some extent. Her argument of course makes sense—sure, if KGB spies were sent to the U.S. to be “sleeper” agents during the Cold War, it’s understandable to have them integrate as best as possible—but to completely eliminate an accent of your native tongue that you carried for the first 20-odd years of your life? Language isn’t that easy. No matter how much practice you get. Viewed from the perspective of the writers and people behind the camera though, this suspense of disbelief is a necessary sacrifice. You can’t cast Russian actors in these roles, people that have slight accents when speaking English. It changes the entire dynamic of the show, and viewers frankly wouldn’t get behind them as they do with Rhys and Russell. Again, this is a show for Americans. It’s easier to accept Russian spies as protagonists if the actors playing them seem very, very American.
Still, with my understanding of the Russian language, it’s impossible to watch The Americans without being acutely aware that my experience is different than intended by its creators. Game of Thrones is of course a very shared experience for me with the rest of American viewers, but The Americans will forever feel much more personal. Many scenes each week follow the employees of the Russian embassy (Rezidentura), who obviously speak to each other almost exclusively in Russian. My Russian isn’t quite good enough to distinguish some of their allegedly poor accents (another gripe pointed out by my mom), but I definitely don’t need the subtitles to follow the conversation. Occasionally I’ll read them to see how they sync up with the actual dialogue (plenty is lost in translation, although not in detriment to the show’s plot), but largely, I just watch, and listen, to the show as a whole.
To avoid the risk of turning this further into one extended humblebrag (side note: being bilingual is cool, but not so much when your second language is native to a nation with a generally despicable regime), I’ll just say that it’s a very interesting phenomenon to watch a show that already features so much political charge and cultural clash, yet fully understand both sides of that. For my mom, this ability seems to completely ruin the show for her—Russian is her first language and always will be, so the fact that it’s presented in an American sense makes it hard for her to see through the inaccuracies. I, on the other hand, can claim English as my native tongue (even though prior to kindergarten it wasn’t). Being an American that can understand Russian just alerts me to the fact that I am just that when I’m watching the show.
Bottom line, The Americans at face value is already a great show. For this viewer (and probably a few others), it just so happens to go a step further and remind me of my unique identity, even if part of that is a nationality I’m not overly excited to display. So yeah, what the hell: it’s pretty cool. Здоровo, if you will.