Dispatches from the telly and pop culture wastelands

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The Americans is not "the new Homeland" - but don't worry, it's still good

The way we consume pop culture is plagued by handy, yet vacuous, comparisons, which only lead us inevitably to disappointment.

Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings in "The Americans".

We are now a few weeks into ITV’s cold-war-sleeper-agent drama The Americans and it has revealed itself to be a tight, taut bit of television. The tension is appropriately tense – a marvel, since we have the advantage of living in 2013, so we know how this particular series of events will end. And in Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys as Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, we have compelling leads, utterly believable in the morass of bad wigs and clunky technology and a travel agency that shows no signs of industry accreditation or paying customers. Yet some people are disappointed.

“It’s not like Homeland at all,” they snivel. They want another Carrie Mathison (a shuddery, brilliant Claire Danes) ballsing things up despite her proven brilliance. They want a tight-lipped and small-mouthed Brit such as Damian Lewis (playing Nick Brody) speaking Arabic (and reciting a Sura Fatiha unrecognisable to this Muslim’s ears), while fooling the US government as well as his family. They want a discordant jazz score, a not-so-subtle nod to the state of Carrie’s feverish mind as she pieces together the lies and fabrications of her lover/nemesis.

They cannot see that beneath Elizabeth Jennings’s flawless hair is a face that conveys the brittle quality of life that goes hand in hand with being a sleeper agent. They do not recognise the longing and bitterness in Philip’s eyes as he contemplates a life less complicated. And they cannot hear the perfectly deployed 1980s soundtrack as anything other than the cheesy fodder of themed club nights. The Americans is every bit as compelling and slick as Homeland, perhaps even more so. The only reason it’s suffering is that it came second. We were promised “the new Homeland” but did not get an exact clone of that juggernaut, so we have gone into the default mode of whining and switching off.

It’s not entirely our fault. We were fed a lie and are only responding to that. We were told to expect “Homeland in the 1980s” and The Americans is not this – it is a subtler take on the spying game, running parallel with the secrets that ordinary people keep in their marriages. In the past few months, you may have seen posters for the French romcom Populaire, a quote on which assures us that it’s: “Mad Men meets The Artist!” A couple of years ago, magazines took sumptuous photos of Romola Garai, Dominic West and Ben Whishaw in gorgeous period dress and told us to look to BBC2’s The Hour for “Mad Men – in 1950s Britain!” Fans of Borgen were breathlessly told to expect a “Danish West Wing!” If you have seen more than five minutes of any of these programmes, you will know how wildly inaccurate these descriptions are.

You can also understand why such lazy shorthand is employed by the blurb-writers. Humans react to similarity and pop culture assumes that familiarity breeds not contempt but steady box-office returns. Witness the glut of good, bad and awful superhero movies over the past decade or so and, more recently, the tireless havoc that the garlicopposed undead have wreaked across the cultural spectrum, from books to both small and big screens.

The vacuous comparisons that arise when the creative people reach for their pens are often useless. They’re handy, sure – in an increasingly SEO-heavy world with an evershrinking attention span (and more things clamouring for our attention), it makes sense to reduce the work of an auteur to no more than five or six pithy words.

The aim is to attract the viewer using landmarks from their pop-culture landscape and then reel them in. They pull in millions this way. By the time the hapless viewers or readers realise that they’re caught, it’s too late and all that is left is a vague feeling of having been swindled, with a side order of disappointment, grudging enjoyment and maybe a cold from the icy cinema conditions. What an awful way to sell.

In the spirit of the vacuous comparison, I have composed a blurb for this column: “Bim Adewunmi’s New Statesman column is like the work of Salon’s Willa Paskin and ThinkProgress’s Alyssa Rosenberg – only black and British!”

Like I said, what an awful way to sell.