If there's one thing television teaches us, it's to never, ever trust our neighbors.
Sure, the Bible tells us to treat them kindly and all. And television agrees—but only to keep them from murdering us in our sleep. After all, they could be serial killers (Dexter) or meth dealers (Breaking Bad) or aliens (The Neighbors). Or, if you lived back in the early 1980s on a block owned by FX, they just might be deep-cover Russian spies.
Meet the Jennings family of The Americans. Phillip and Elizabeth run a travel agency. (They still had such things back then.) Daughter Paige likes to shop at the newfangled mall in town. Son Henry loves playing backyard hockey. These all-Americans look like they crawled right out of a Hallmark Channel special. (Or they would if Hallmark had had a cable channel during the Cold War.)
But the Jennings are actually Russians, sent by the Soviet Union to spy on all things U.S. They groom sources. They take pictures. They either have sex with or kill anyone who might know anything. Then they ship whatever they can back to their motherland.
James Bond is not their template here, though. Because even as they spy for the Soviet Union, they're just trying to live their lives, too—raise their kids in the best way they know how. When Phillip and Elizabeth stay awake with worry, it's more often because of their children, not their super-secret occupations. What mother wouldn't worry about her daughter going through adolescence? What father wouldn't fret about how best to deal with his headstrong boy?
And then, because neither child knows what Mom and Dad really do for a living, they have another worry: What if they're caught? What becomes of their kids? Phillip in particular seems conflicted over his duties as Soviet agent and his responsibilities as a husband and father. Frankly, there are times when he would much rather scrap the whole spy scene and defect.
"We always conceived of The Americans as a show about a marriage, more than espionage, that shows how, even under the craziest circumstances, the marriage still looks and feels like any other marriage," Joseph Weisberg, the show's creator (and a former CIA employee) told Time. "I think Matthew Rhys [as Phillip] is this incredible embodiment of a suburban dad and a tough KGB officer at the same time. Keri Russell [as Elizabeth] can be such a loving mom who can turn, on a dime, into this killer."
Indeed she can. And does. She and Phillip can also quickly and easily scrap their wedding vows to use sex as a weapon of war against someone else with valuable information to share. Thus, both Phillip and Elizabeth sleep around a lot—and it's all shown in extreme, embarrassing, titillating detail. From flashes of nudity to explicit sexual movements, FX makes full use of the show's TV-MA rating. In the pilot, viewers are subjected to oral sex, an incredibly graphic rape scene and crude references to pedophilia. So it's hard to think of a more sexually explicit show airing on basic cable.
The violence, too, is routinely extreme—more harrowing, perhaps, than perspicuous. These are spies, remember, who must do their work in secret. Rarely do we see showy spouts of blood. But the callous brutality with which they go about their work—well, let's just say that even Dexter might wince. Language is often harsh, with characters prone to saying the s-word or abusing Jesus' name.
There's one more detail to deal with here: the enemy. It may seem quaint now, but this being a period piece, it's relevant to remember that in the 1980s many in the Soviet Union wanted to utterly bring down the United States and all it stood for. Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings would've been significant tools in their arsenal.
"One paradigm I have is that the audience sympathizes with Philip and Elizabeth, follows them along as they are on some dangerous and scary mission and wants them to succeed," Weisberg said. "And then the audience suddenly gasps, 'Oh my God, I was just rooting for them while they were carrying out this terrible thing that was devastating the U.S. government!' There's this moment of shock because they've been rooting against our own interest. Then before you know it, Philip and Elizabeth are back at home with their nice kids, and the audience is on their side again. Through that experience, there's a breakdown of the barriers between us and them. Finding yourself rooting for the enemy is a fundamental part of the experience. What is the enemy? What does it even mean to be the enemy?"
It's actually a pretty profound question. And the answers to it make a huge difference in how one sees the world. But do we need such a salacious show to do the asking?
If there's one thing television teaches us, it's to never, ever trust your neighbors. But The Americans tells us that trusting our televisions can be just as dangerous.
In order to plant a bug in the U.S. Secretary of State's private study, Phillip and Elizabeth blackmail the secretary's housekeeper by poisoning her son. In 72 hours, they tell her, her college-age boy will be dead unless she cooperates.
The housekeeper, however, is deeply loyal to the family she serves, and very religious to boot. This prompts Phillip to say, "People who believe in God always make the worst targets." And sure enough, the housekeeper refuses to "help." "I know the devil," she tells Philip. "I don't listen to you. I listen to my Lord. He protects me. He guides me." With that, Phillip grabs a pillow and begins smothering her son right in front of her—keeping it up until she finally relents. Elsewhere, torture is used to get somebody to talk. (Something is stuffed down an informant's mouth and throat.) Elizabeth intimates that she'd kill herself before getting caught.
Phillip shares a graphic sex scene with a politician's trophy wife. It involves rear nudity, some roughness and sexual movements. We see the woman elsewhere in her bra and panties. She frequently kisses and poses dirty come-ons to Phillip.
After the pilot focuses on a man crudely propositioning the 14-year-old Paige, it's notable that part of this episode revolves around her buying a bra and getting her ears pierced. (We see part of her bra strap.) Characters drink wine and beer. They say the s-word four or five times, and also say "a‑‑" and "d‑‑n," misuse both God's and Jesus' names, and apply lots of vulgar terms to various body parts.