By Ken Hall.
A key to the innovative nature of this series, according to Mizejewski, is its presentation of espionage thriller elements within ‘domestic melodrama.’”
The compelling television series The Americans (FX, 2013-18) is presented as a landmark example of “quality” television production in this fine study. In her new monograph for Wayne State University Press’s TV Milestones series, Linda Mizejewski focuses on key areas of interest in the series, comparing the importance of the roles of women and men within the framework of an innovative spy melodrama and the significance in television history of the concentration in this television series on the family as the nexus of the espionage activity. The “milestone” nature of the series is neatly summarized: “The Americans transfigured television history with its bold merger of the spy genre and domestic melodrama” (Mizejewski 3). The book is especially laudable in its evenhanded discussion of the stresses, and the scant rewards, of the espionage life of the men and women involved in that life, regardless of their status as American or Russian, outside or inside the realm of law enforcement. The author provides excellent examples of the complex character narratives, as in her presentation of the potentially violent confrontation between the Jennings pair (Elizabeth and Philip) in an otherwise ordinary setting in their kitchen (Mizejewski 6).
A key to the innovative nature of this series, according to Mizejewski, is its presentation of espionage thriller elements within “domestic melodrama,” including a focus on melodramatic situations for men as well as women (Mizejewski 7–10). Although the book is a brief volume, not allowing for exhaustive treatment of a considerable number of episodes, the author illustrates the series arc by choosing salient examples of its important aspects—melodramatic treatment of family and espionage narratives, male and female roles in work and marriage, political contexts, trauma and death as integral elements of the systems explored in the series, and the importance for the production of achieving an authentic, or at least believable, 1980s milieu. One of the more interesting examples of this grounding in family melodrama and in the Reagan era is discussed in Chapter 3, “Family TV,” which begins with the Jennings family watching a 1983 show by David Copperfield, in which the magician appears to cause the Statue of Liberty to “disappear” (Mizejewski 79). The usage of television even in a family headed by Russian illegals is linked by the author with broader questions of popular culture, ideological bias, and the treatment of history (Mizejewski 80 -81).
The book deals rather thoroughly, given space limitations, with the important female and male characters enmeshed in the context of espionage and violence. Among the most important characters in the series, Mizejewski presents a balanced and incisive view of the difficulties experienced (and caused) by FBI agents Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) and Frank Gaad (Richard Thomas), as well as the similar challenges of their opposition, exemplified by Oleg Burov (Costa Ronin) and Arkady Zotov (Lev Gorn). The study also presents racial concerns, exemplified in the FBI by Dennis Aderholt (Brandon J. Dirden).
An important topic covered by this study is the role of children, and the effect on their psychological and social development, in the ruthless Cold War battles of the Reagan era. The most significant example of the manipulative strategies applied to children in that context is Paige Jennings (Holly Taylor), who is indoctrinated into the KGB fold by Elizabeth and by Elizabeth’s handler Claudia (Margo Martindale), although as Mizejewski incisively observes, the showrunners provide a counter to this process by first showing Paige enlisting into an evangelical church which focuses on social remediation and outreach (Mizejewski 95). Having grown up in an American environment, Paige is strongly conflicted when her parents announce their intention to return to Russia, and she decides to stay in America rather than accompany them to their home country (Mizejewski 98). Ending the study and its discussion of family conflicts within the Cold War milieu is the pertinent observation that “The return to home is a central trope in melodrama’s prioritizing of private space and private life” (Mizejewski 100). Mizejewski’s closely argued study illuminates the melodramatic framework of a landmark television series. Overall, this book is highly recommended.
Mizejewski, Linda. The Americans. TV Milestones. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 2022.
Ken Hall (Ph.D., University of Arizona, 1986; MA, University of NC-Chapel Hill, 1978) is professor emeritus of Spanish at ETSU, where he had taught since 1999, and a regular contributor to Film International and Retreats from Oblivion: The Journal of NoirCon. His publications include Professionals in Western Film and Fiction (McFarland, 2019), John Woo: The Films (McFarland,  2012), John Woo’s The Killer (Hong Kong University Press, 2009), Stonewall Jackson and Religious Faith in Military Command (McFarland, 2005) and Guillermo Cabrera Infante and the Cinema (Juan de la Cuesta Hispanic Monographs, 1989).