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.

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.

Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings in "The Americans".

Bim Adewunmi writes about race, feminism and popular culture. Her blog is  yorubagirldancing.com and you can find her on Twitter as @bimadew.

This article first appeared in the 01 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Brazil erupts

Chuka Umunna speaks at the launch of Labour's education manifesto during the general election. Photograph: Getty Images.
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After so badly misjudging the leadership contest, how will the Blairites handle Corbyn?

The left-winger's opponents are divided between conciliation and aggression. 

When Labour lost the general election in May, the party’s modernisers sensed an opportunity. Ed Miliband, one of the most left-wing members of the shadow cabinet, had been unambiguously rejected and the Tories had achieved their first majority in 23 years. More than any other section of the party, the Blairites could claim to have foreseen such an outcome. Surely the pendulum would swing their way?

Yet now, as Labour’s leadership contest reaches its denouement, those on the right are asking themselves how they misjudged the landscape so badly. Their chosen candidate, Liz Kendall, is expected to finish a poor fourth and the party is poised to elect Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing leader in its 115-year history. For a faction that never ceases to underline the importance of winning elections, it will be a humbling result.

Though the crash has been sudden, the Blairites have long been in decline. Gordon Brown won the leadership unchallenged and senior figures such as John Reid, James Purnell and Alan Milburn chose to depart from the stage rather than fight on. In 2010, David Miliband, the front-runner in the leadership election, lost to his brother after stubbornly refusing to distance himself from the Iraq war and alienating undecided MPs with his imperiousness.

When the younger Miliband lost, the modernisers moved fast – too fast. “They’re behaving like family members taking jewellery off a corpse,” a rival campaign source told me on 9 May. Many Labour supporters agreed. The rush of op-eds and media interviews antagonised a membership that wanted to grieve in peace. The modernising contenders – Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall, Mary Creagh, Tristram Hunt – gave the impression that the Blairites wanted to drown out all other voices. “It was a huge mistake for so many players from that wing of the party to be put into the field,” a shadow cabinet minister told me. “In 1994, forces from the soft left to the modernising right united around Tony Blair. The lesson is never again can we have multiple candidates.”

While conducting their post-mortem, the Blairites are grappling with the question of how to handle Corbyn. For some, the answer is simple. “There shouldn’t be an accommodation with Corbyn,” John McTernan, Blair’s former director of political operations, told me. “Corbyn is a disaster and he should be allowed to be his own disaster.” But most now adopt a more conciliatory tone. John Woodcock, the chair of Progress, told me: “If he wins, he will be the democratically elected leader and I don’t think there will be any serious attempt to actually depose him or to make it impossible for him to lead.”

Umunna, who earlier rebuked his party for “behaving like a petulant child”, has emphasised that MPs “must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office”. The shadow business secretary even suggests that he would be prepared to discuss serving in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet if he changed his stances on issues such as nuclear disarmament, Nato, the EU and taxation. Were Umunna, a former leadership contender, to adopt a policy of aggression, he would risk being blamed should Corbyn fail.

Suggestions that the new parliamentary group Labour for the Common Good represents “the resistance” are therefore derided by those close to it. The organisation, which was launched by Umunna and Hunt before Corbyn’s surge, is aimed instead at ensuring the intellectual renewal that modernisers acknowledge has been absent since 2007. It will also try to unite the party’s disparate mainstream factions: the Blairites, the Brownites, the soft left, the old right and Blue Labour. The ascent of Corbyn, who has the declared support of just 15 MPs (6.5 per cent of the party), has persuaded many that they cannot afford the narcissism of small differences. “We need to start working together and not knocking lumps out of each other,” Woodcock says. There will be no defections, no SDP Mk II. “Jeremy’s supporters really underestimate how Labour to the core the modernisers are,” Pat McFadden, the shadow Europe minister, told me.

Although they will not change their party, the Blairites are also not prepared to change their views. “Those of us on this side of Labour are always accused of being willing to sell out for power,” a senior moderniser told me. “Well, we do have political principles and they’re not up for bartering.” He continued: “Jeremy Corbyn is not a moderate . . .
He’s an unreconstructed Bennite who regards the British army as morally equivalent to the IRA. I’m not working with that.”

Most MPs believe that Corbyn will fail but they are divided on when. McFadden has predicted that the left-winger “may even get a poll bounce in the short term, because he’s new and thinking differently”. A member of the shadow cabinet suggested that Labour could eventually fall to as low as 15 per cent in the polls and lose hundreds of councillors.

The challenge for the Blairites is to reboot themselves in time to appear to be an attractive alternative if and when Corbyn falters. Some draw hope from the performance of Tessa Jowell, who they still believe will win the London mayoral selection. “I’ve spoken to people who are voting enthusiastically both for Jeremy and for Tessa,” Wes Streeting, the newly elected MP for Ilford North, said. “They have both run very optimistic, hopeful, positive campaigns.”

But if Corbyn falls, it does not follow that the modernisers will rise. “The question is: how do we stop it happening again if he does go?” a senior frontbencher said. “He’s got no interest or incentive to change the voting method. We could lose nurse and end up with something worse.” If the road back to power is long for Labour, it is longest of all for the Blairites. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses