Now FX’s The Americans promises to scratch that itch weekly. The series must walk the fragile path between effectively conjuring up the styles and politics of the 80s and coming off as retro nostalgia, or worse, a parody of that still-nearby moment. I’ve been impressed each week at the way the show delivers on the level of plot and character as well as making the potentially distracting work of transporting us to 1981 look simple.
So far, this is working because the writers seem to be paying as much attention to our memory of the 80s suburb as they are to our memory of international politics. This is not a suburban sitcom, of course. But it is very much a family drama–albeit one quietly tucked away inside an impressively suspenseful, spy thriller. The suburban location is more than setting: it helps to reinforce how much spouse and family dynamics are in play as these two spies make decisions together on the job. It is also a clever reminder that the 1980s were rife with moments when the suburbs seemed prey to unseeable threats–“porn rock,” pollution, kidnappers to name a few. It’s a small stroke of genius to make communists just one more of the things going bump in the bucolic suburban night.
More than that, each week the series has impressed me with its consistent, subtle, patient hand in doling out 80s references to anchor us emotionally. Sure, we know it’s the 80s because we are watching KGB agents. We feel like it’s the 80s because there are creepy strangers hanging out in the mall. Because when was the last time you heard that catchy single by Quarterflash? Because the kids are writing papers on the space race. Because throw-away dialogue includes 80s references as obscure as Doug Henning but does so with a nonchalance that practically invites you to miss these moments or, instead, to catch their quiet comings and goings and say to yourself, “Wow, I like this show.”
So you should be watching. Binge view the first few episodes online. And let me know what little 80s souvenir is the one that gets you hooked.