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Why ‘The Americans’ Continues to Be One of TV’s Most Relevant Dramas
May 18, 2016  | By Alex Strachan
"Our response to this piece of nuclear-freeze propaganda must be swift and convincing. President Reagan has presented this country with the only option to nuclear disaster: the construction of a strategic defense system that can protect the free world from aggression without the use of the threat of annihilation as a deterrent.”

—   Lewis Lehman, Citizens for America, in reaction to the airing of the 1983 TV-movie The Day After.

The Americans has always had a keen sense of the past, but perhaps never more so than this season. The serialized drama about Russian agents living a double life in the suburbs of Washington, DC in Reagan-era America has become darker, more resonant and more thoughtful in its third season. Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, the seeming all-American couple with two seemingly well-adjusted teenage children, have stolen their share of state secrets and passed them on to their Soviet minders, but they’re starting to worry about the future — their own personal future, and that of the world around them.

One of the signature touches of today’s new golden age of TV drama is the way the small screen is suddenly aware of its past, in the same way movies in the early 1970s began to reference other, earlier movies — Charlton Heston, for example, unspooling Woodstock in an empty movie theatre in the opening scenes of The Omega Man, and ruminating about how, “Nope, they sure don’t make pictures like that anymore.”

Mad Men based an entire series on the popular tastes, culture and social mores of a period in recent American history, including TV and the movies. In one 2013 episode, Don Draper takes his older son Bobby to see Planet of the Apes without permission, and is later castigated by his estranged wife for giving their son nightmares. (In a sign of the times, bloggers at Slate, Huffington Post and other sites accused Mad Men of giving away a significant spoiler, ruining Planet of the Apes for future generations — talk about irony.)

Even so, last week’s episode of The Americans, titled — double-meaning intended — “The Day After” might have marked a watershed moment in what is already one of present-day TV’s most thoughtful, and thought-provoking dramas.

At that precise moment when Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, consummately played by Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys, are beginning to question the dangerous forces they’re helping let loose into the world — nuclear-missile secrets, weaponized hemorrhagic fevers, germ-warfare samples, etc. — they find themselves watching a made-for-TV movie called The Day After (top and right) along with 100 million other people.

The Day After, directed by Nicholas Meyer and featuring a cast of then big-screen luminaries like Jason Robards, JoBeth Williams and a young Amy Madigan, was a cautionary tale about the morning after a nuclear attack on the continental U.S. Meyer and writer Edward Hume sought realism in every detail, and the result was both disquieting and profoundly depressing. The Day After aired without commercial interruption on Nov. 20, 1983, on ABC. And, yes, more than 100 million people watched during the program’s initial broadcast.

Reviews were mixed, from TV critics and scientists alike. That wasn’t the point, though. The Day After marked a moment in time when a mass audience — 100 million people — could sit down and watch a scripted TV drama as a shared experience, from the intimacy of one’s own home.

It seems unlikely, impossible even, that experience can be repeated now, in the age of DVRs, web streams and on-demand viewing. Live events — the Super Bowl, NBA playoffs, the Oscars — are different. Scripted drama, though, has to follow a new script. 

So-called live +7 ratings — cumulative viewing over seven days — are now more important than the overnight ratings, and some scripted programs, especially those that target a younger, hard-to-reach audience, draw more viewers after their initial air date than they do the night of broadcast.

The Day After didn’t change TV habits overnight, just as it didn’t affect nuclear-disarmament talks at the time in any measurable, meaningful way. It did cause a mass audience to stop and think, though, if only for a moment. The moments-after reaction at the time is hard to remember today, but it was fascinating to see. ABC aired a live after-show, hosted by Ted Koppel and featuring Carl Sagan, Henry Kissinger, Elie Wiesel, former defense secretary Robert McNamara and conservative commentator William F Buckley, Jr. (Take that, Chris Hardwick, with your Talking Dead after-shows and nerdist panelists.)

November 20, 1983 was not the day the world changed, and neither was May 11, 2016.

Even so, it’s remarkable how The Americans remains relevant today, even though it’s firmly rooted in the early 1980s. News reports last week noted that while American and allied officials celebrated the opening of a long-awaited missile defense system in Europe — with a ribbon-cutting ceremony and a marching band, no less — the reaction in Russia was less enthusiastic. As reported in the New York Times, one conservative Russian commentator remarked darkly on the Russian news portal Lenta.ru that the new antimissile sites in Eastern Europe might accelerate the slippery slope to nuclear war in the event of a crisis, with the result that any subsequent stand-down will likely be negotiated “over the smoking ruins” of countries like Romania that host the antimissile sites.

The Day After, in other words, may not be as dated as it might appear today.

Last week’s episode of The Americans may have marked a turning point for the series. It’s impossible to know without knowing how long The Americans will last and what, if any, end game series-creator Joe Weisberg and showrunner Joel Fields have plotted in advance.

The remaining four episodes of the season, beginning with this week’s “Munchkins” (above, left, Wednesday 5/18 on FX at 10 p.m. ET) and ending with the season finale “Persona Non Grata” on June 8 will go a long way toward signaling whether the episode “The Day After” telescoped The Americans’ ending, or whether, like the original TV movie itself, it was a one-off.

Either way, one thing is clear: The Americans, after just 48 episodes, is emblematic of the new golden age of TV drama — timely, intense, tightly wound and, at times, truly profound.  

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