Why FX's 'The Americans' Is TV's Best Show About Marriage and Family

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Prepare to forget everything you think you know about Keri Russell and her role as an introspective college student who got the most famous haircut in primetime television history.  Felicity is all grown up now.  And she's a spy.  Not a hero spy either.

On FX's new hit show The Americans, she plays Elizabeth Jennings, a Soviet spy in an arranged marriage of convenience with her husband Phillip (played by Matthew Rhys, of ABC's Brothers and Sisters), who's also a spy.

Image courtesy of FX

Known to their neighbors as travel agents, these Soviet loyalists have fake identities as typical suburban parents outside of Washington, D.C. with their daughter and son, who know nothing of their parents' profession or Russian ancestry. In addition to making school lunches and going for ice cream, this couple spends their days capturing and killing Soviet traitors, drugging adversaries, and planting listening devices.

The show is set in the 1980s, and I loved the way that Phil Collins and Fleetwood Mac set the mood for some of the best scenes. Unlike Mad Men, the show doesn't constantly play up the fact that it's a period drama in an in-your-face way. (Although Keri Russell does get to wear some seriously high-waisted jeans.)

The show begins just as President Reagan takes office and has committed new moral and military force to the country's fight against communism, a fact which has real world implications for the Jennings couple, whose spy activities are now kicked into overdrive after years of little action.  The spy thriller plot is compelling and enough of a reason alone to check out the show, especially if you're missing the terrorist-fighting of Showtime's Homeland and the character-driven, period melodrama of Mad Men.

But what interests me most about the show -- and the best reason to check it out -- is its portrait of family and marriage.  Rarely does a television show capture the complexity of family life-- the mix of affection, familiarity, desire for shared goals, obligation, and resentment.   I think it taps into questions that many spouses think about, but rarely voice out loud, in their own lives at some point during long marriages.   All marriages evolve over time and a spouse gets to know more about his partner's best and worst selves.  For Elizabeth and Phillip, this growing knowledge of each other is thrilling, dangerous, and potentially threatening to their mission.

While I was watching, this Soviet couple made me wonder:

1.  What happens when you realize that the person that you're living with isn't the person that you thought when you first married?  And, alternatively, what if you're not the person you were when you first were married?

2.  What happens when you and your partner have very different approaches to child rearing?  Philip is much more engaged and affectionate as a parent than Elizabeth, whose concern and loyalty toward her children are implied to be a distant second to her bond to her homeland country.  Phillip's love for his children causes him to question his and Elizabeth's mission, while Elizabeth has no such qualms about the consequences for her children's futures.

3.  How do you deal with infidelity?  Both Elizabeth and Phillip use seduction as a tactic to obtaining information, with the other spouse's knowledge.  Elizabeth and Phillip do little to confront how their outside sexual liasons affect their relationship with each other, just as many couples in real life.

4.  What happens when one family member -- in this case, Elizabeth -- has more loyalty to a cause (or an activity, or a sport, or his outside family) than to the family unit itself?  Elizabeth is a true communist believer.  Phillip is starting to question his commitment.  He wonders whether the couple should defect, take a large payout, and settle down as real Americans for the good of their children.  Are Elizabeth's and Phillip's priorities incompatible?

5.  Finally, what is a "real" family? What is a "real" marriage?  Elizabeth and Phillip were strangers when they met and were given their espionage assignments in their 1960s.  But, as viewers, you wonder how different that situation is from any very long, very real relationship.

6.  How much of your history, worries, and stress do you keep from your children?  Everything about this couple's past is kept secret from their children, and most people don't keep their children from knowing their entire identity. But what should kids know -- and what do you they really want to know -- about their parents' choices and moral dilemmas?

 And as viewers, just as in real life, you are forced to wonder which of these characters are the real villains and which are heroes -- and if everybody is actually something in between -- in their professional activities and parenting as well as their moral characters.  Just as in real-life parenting and marriage, the answers to these questions are often not so simple.

Have you seen the show?  What are your favorite dramas?

[Editor's Note: The Americans airs on FX Wednesday Nights at 10pm. You can catch up on the episodes you've missed here.]

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