Thursday, January 21, 2016

So Wrong, It's Right

Finished watching season one of The Americans last night, the FX drama about deep-cover KGB sleeper agents in eighties Washington.  Needless to say, there will be mild Spoilers here.

So The Americans is both very entertaining and utterly absurd.  It's an espionage soap-opera filled with cheesy dialogue and outbursts of the type of badass close-quarters combat that's been compulsory in spy and hitman dramas since at least Grosse Point Blank.  The bodycount is ludicrous, more like a two-day bender in Beirut than any Le Carre novel. Sensationalism-wise, one episode alone features more gratuitous fucking than entire seasons of HBO dramas have done.

Despite the show's eighties setting, it's only the klutzes and doofi who dress in a recognisably eighties fashion.  The main cast spend most of their time looking like they've just completed a trolley-dash in The Gap.  Mind you, most of the Soviets look like the human embodiment of a miserable hangover in 1974, which is at least historically accurate.

Still, there's lots of fun to be had here, as spies and counter-intelligence agents engage in the kind of ruthless, kill-crazy murder sprees on the streets of DC that the real spooks tended to reserve for Latin America and southern Africa.  At one point, the head of the FBI's counter-spy unit - played by John Boy Walton, believe it or not - summarises events:

"This isn't a Cold War.  There's nothing cold about the covert violent exchanges between the United States and the Soviet Union.  They've killed not only our agents but our citizens and for that, they'll pay".  

Ooh, those covert violent exchanges!  For a show that's supposedly about a titanic global political struggle between two great, implacable superpowers, there's precious little politics here.  KGB agent Elizabeth - Keri Russell, kicking ass like the Terminator - is plainly intended to be the fanatical party loyalist.  You can tell that she is, because the scriptwriters occasionally have her stop whatever she's doing to remind the audience that boy, she really isn't very keen on this capitalism malarkey.  The FBI are mainly just gung-ho coppers.

You get the feeling that the quandary at the heart of the show is - how are you supposed to kill motherfuckers for Marxist-Leninism, when the kids need picking up from school?  There's probably more ironic political commentary in the average Marvel comic these days but oddly, this isn't such a bad thing in the end.

The central MacGuffin for season one is the Reagan administration's Strategic Defence Initiative.  Moscow is terrified that the Star Wars program will hand the US an insuperable advantage, so they pack our anti-heroes off on increasingly dangerous and pointless missions to uncover details about it.

We end up with a thoroughly depoliticised gang fight between two rival groups of mobsters, both determined to fight each other to the death over pretty much fuck-all.  As you'd expect, the SDI initiative turns out to be one of the most hilarious frauds ever perpetrated on taxpayers anywhere - it doesn't work, and never could have.  It's nothing but a giant boondoggle designed to shovel vast sums of cash into the pockets of defence contractors.  The Soviet Union is on its last legs, mere years from its inevitable collapse under the weight of its own lunatic bullshit.

The characters kung-fu chop each other in the neck and shoot each other in the face, and nobody seems to have much idea why they're doing it, beyond than the fact that it's what they're paid to do.  Which is pretty much what the Cold War was, by 1981 - two towering bureaucracies going through the motions, still threatening the entire planet with total annihilation, while their leaders quietly stuffed their pockets with everything that could be stolen.

I mean, I liked it!  It's all good, knockabout larks, although I'm unsure whether it suffers from ropey, confused scriptwriting, or is in fact a grand satirical anti-war masterpiece on a par with Catch-22.

If it's the latter, I have to salute everyone involved, because it's doing a wonderful job of portraying the ridiculous insanity of the era. 


parkenf said...

To be fair to the Americans as a people and a programme, proper 80s style intrigue and even proper 80s terrorism must seem a little low stakes these days. I have re-watched all of Smiley's People recently and found it both extremely gripping but also terrifyingly intense, with basically just a couple of large men looming in a cul de sac. I wonder if perhaps I'm the last generation who can enjoy it as a thriller rather than as a period piece.

parkenf said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

"Still, there's lots of fun to be had here, as spies and counter-intelligence agents engage in the kind of ruthless, kill-crazy murder sprees on the streets of DC that the real spooks tended to reserve for Latin America and southern Africa."

The action in the 1980s cold war was in Afghanistan, Latin America and southern Africa but wasn't usually in the form of kill-crazy murder sprees on the streets. Parcel bombs, attacks on trains, burning of villages were the usual forms of warfare.


gilbert wham said...

Deutschland 83 is far more sensible, both plot and trousers-wise.The subtitles are annoyingly small though.

Ken said...

What we've all been waiting for: an actual Communist hot take on Deutschland 83.

And a very interesting story it is, too. I've sometimes thought that the 1980s were a planetary-scale quantum suicide experiment. We just live in the time-line where accidental WW3 didn't happen.