TV Culture: Who Are “The Americans”?

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If you live in Los Angeles, you’ve probably seen the provocative billboard for The Americans multiple times somewhere along your route to school or work. The pilot episode of FX’s new drama aired last week, taking viewers back to the Cold War era to explore questions surrounding American identity. This dialogue inevitably included an examination of the complexities of race and ethnicity.

The show’s main protagonists, Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings, are two KGB spies posing as Americans in suburban Washington, D.C. The pilot episode is packed with loaded backstories, relationship drama and a decent amount of action, but becomes most interesting when the Jennings discover that their new neighbor, Stan Beeman, is an FBI agent working in the counterintelligence department. As expected, the tension was subtly high when the families met. Their very first conversation conveniently revolved around Stan’s disgust for the Russians and his eagerness to take them down. The dramatic irony of his statements lingered throughout the entire episode and is sure to continue throughout the season.

Since the Jennings have no distinct physical features that give away their foreignness, Stan felt free to completely denounce them to their faces, not realizing who they really were. In fact, Philip’s odd and nervous behavior is the only reason why Stan eventually suspected them of being Russian spies. In addition to lots of political commentary, the episode addressed white privilege in a way that I haven’t seen done on television. A white couple and their oblivious children are outsiders in America, yet they are able to blend in perfectly. Despite America’s claim to diversity, there are few countries that can send citizens to do the same.

Non-white immigrants have been fighting for acceptance into the American definition for decades. Although the minority population is rapidly increasing, the default profile of an American is still considered to be a white person. The Americans challenge the notion that all white people are perceived equal. It was evident how discriminatory the American people were towards Russians in the 1980s. While other television shows are making efforts to capture the stories of non-whites in America, The Americans is tackling diversity from a different perspective. If the first season is anything like the pilot, this show is sure to educate and intrigue audiences in ways that are fresh to the current television landscape.

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