Sex? Check. Betrayal? Check. Clandestine meetings? Check. FX’s The Americans and Showtime’s Homeland have all the trappings of typical spy dramas, yet both have managed throw the conventions of the genre to the wind then blow them up in a parked car.
Sure, the two shows have a lot of similarities — both are driven by strong female leads, both play with the “spies next door” theme. But The Americans is not FX’s answer to Showtime’s Homeland. Both shows are redefining the traditionally sleek and sexy spy genre but in very different ways.
FX’s thriller is, at its core, a family drama that happens to take place in a world of spies. Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings (Kerri Russell and Matthew Rhys) are Soviet sleeper agents posing as Americans in 1981. They live in the suburbs of Washington, DC. They drive their kids to hockey practice and to the mall. But their marriage is a sham, arranged by the KGB fifteen years before the show begins. The Jennings’ missions to weaken the US government — full of fantastic wigs and fun, compact fight scenes — are side stories. We all know how the Cold War ended, and it wasn’t at the hands of two attractive Soviet spies living in the burbs.
The central mystery of the show is the relationship between “Elizabeth” and “Philip.” Do these two really trust each other? After 15 years and two children, is there love between them?
The Americans doesn’t ask us to root for the Commies, despite its two protagonists being Soviet spies. It asks us to root for a marriage.
Homeland, on the other hand, is a heart-pounding political thriller with very real and unknown consequences. It gets muddled when it delves too deeply into family dynamics and love affairs. It was interesting to watch Brody (Damian Lewis) reintegrate into family life after eight years in captivity and have really bad sex with his wife, but how many times did we have to watch Brody’s 16-year-old daughter play with her hands, roll her eyes, and storm out of a scene. We get it Dana, you’re rebellious.
Homeland works best when everything is about to boil over. Its counterpart is best as a slow simmer.
It helps that the FX show is set in the 1980s. The immediacy of drone attacks and automated facial recognition software doesn’t exist. If Elizabeth and Phillip have to find a face in a photo, they have to do it by hand with magnifying glasses.
Both shows benefit from strong lead actors and supporting cast. Both Russell and Claire Danes, as CIA agent Carrie Mathison on Homeland, have traded their angsty teen actor past for strong, determined roles. While The Americans doesn’t benefit from the extraordinary Mandy Patinkin, it does have great character actors in Margo Martindale and Noah Emmerich.
Both shows have rejected the sleek sexiness of many spy thrillers. Yes, there is a lot of sex on The Americans. I mean, a lot of sex. It was the 1980s, how else were spies supposed to get information? But the show’s sex isn’t stylized or glorified. It’s gritty and sometimes painful to watch.
On Homeland CIA agents don’t seduce bad guys in lingerie for information; they wait for warrants and congressional oversight. They don’t beat the truth out of terrorists; they arrange back-room deals and immunity agreements.
You’ll never see Carrie sashaying down a hallway to an electro-pop soundtrack, Sydney Bristow style. She solves the show’s central mysteries in front of a cork board in sweatpants with a glass of wine and Miles Davis.
Though Homeland lagged a little in its second season, both it and The Americans are refreshing additions to the long history of spies on TV. Both shows have been renewed for new seasons. I, for one, am interested to see how each will unfold.
Find Leah Burrows on Google+.