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

Photo: Bulent Kilic/Getty Images
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We need to talk about the origins of the refugee crisis

Climate change, as much as Isis, is driving Europe's migrant crisis, says Barry Gardiner. 

Leaders get things wrong. Of course they do. They have imperfect information. They face competing political pressures. Ultimately they are human. The mark of a bad leader is not to make the wrong decision. It is to make no decision at all.

David Cameron’s paralysis over the unfolding human tragedy of Syrian refugees should haunt him for the rest of his natural life. At a time when political and moral leadership was most called for he has maintained the most cowardly silence. 

All summer, as Italy, Greece, Hungary and Macedonia have been trying to cope with the largest migration of people this continent has seen in 70 years, Downing Street has kept putting out spokespeople to claim the government is working harder than any other country “to solve the causes of the crisis” and that this justifies the UK’s refusal to take more than the 216 refugees it has so far admitted directly from Syria. The truth is it hasn’t and it doesn’t.

Anyone who truly wants to solve the causes of the nightmare that is Syria today must look beyond the vicious and repressive regime of Assad or the opportunistic barbarism of ISIL. They need to understand why it was that hundreds of thousands of ruined farmers from Al-Hasakeh, Deir Ezzor and AL-Raqqa in the northeast of that country flocked to the cities in search of government assistance in the first place - only to find it did not exist.

Back in 2010 just after David Cameron became Prime Minister, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation warned that, after the longest and most severe drought in Syria, since records began in 1900, 3 million Syrians were facing extreme poverty. In 2011 the International Institute for Strategic Studies published a report claiming that climate change “will increase the risks of resource shortages, mass migration and civil conflict”. These were some of the deep causes of the Syrian civil war just as they are the deep causes of the conflicts in Tunisia, South Sudan, Somalia, Libya and Egypt. So what about Cameron’s claim that his government has been working to solve them?

Two years after that Institute for Strategic Studies report pointed out that conflict as a result of  drought in countries like Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia had already claimed 600,000 lives,  the parliamentary Committee on Arms Export Controls found the UK Government had issued more than 3,000 export licenses for military and intelligence equipment worth a total of £12.3bn to countries which were on its own official list for human rights abuses; including to Libya, Tunisia, Somalia, Sudan, Egypt and Syria. That was the same year that UK aid to Africa was cut by 7.4% to just £3.4billion. Working to solve the root causes? Or working to fuel the ongoing conflict?

A year later in 2014 home office minister, James Brokenshire told the House of Commons that the government would no longer provide support to the Mare Nostrum operation that was estimated to have saved the lives of more than 150,000 refugees in the Mediterranean, because it was providing what the government called a “pull factor”. He said: “The government believes the most effective way to prevent refugees and migrants attempting this dangerous crossing, is to focus our attention on countries of origin and transit, as well as taking steps to fight the people smugglers who wilfully put lives at risk by packing migrants into unseaworthy boats.”

In fact the ending of the rescue operation did not reduce the number of refugees. It was not after all a “pull factor” but the push factor – what was happening in Syria - that proved most important. Earlier this summer, David Cameron indicated that he believed the UK should consider joining the United States in the bombing campaign against Isis in Syria, yet we know that for every refugee fleeing persecution under Assad, or the murderous thuggery of ISIS, there is another fleeing the bombing of their city by the United States in its attempt to degrade ISIS.  The bombing of one’s home is a powerful push factor.

The UK has not even fulfilled Brokenshire’s promise to fight the people smugglers. The Financial Action Task Force has reported that human trafficking generates proportionately fewer Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs) annually than other comparable crimes because the level of awareness is lower. Prosecuting the heads of the trafficking networks has not been a focus of government activity. Scarcely a dozen minor operatives pushing boats on the shores of Turkey have actually been arrested. But it is not the minnows that the UK government should be concentrating on. It is their bosses with a bank account in London where a series of remittances are coming in from money transfer businesses in Turkey or North Africa. Ministers should be putting real pressure on UK banks who should be registering SARs so the authorities can investigate and begin to prosecute the ultimate beneficiaries who are driving and orchestrating this human misery. They are not.

That image, which few of us will ever completely erase from our mind, will no doubt prompt David Cameron to make a renewed gesture. An extra million for refugee camps in Jordan, or perhaps a voluntary commitment to take a couple of thousand more refugees under a new European Quota scheme. But if the UK had been serious about tackling the causes of this crisis it had the opportunity in Addis Ababa in July this year at the Funding for Sustainable Development Conference. In fact it failed to bring forward new money for the very climate adaptation that could stem the flow of refugees. In Paris this December the world will try to reach agreement on combating the dangerous climate change that Syria and North Africa are already experiencing. Without agreement there, we in the rich world will have to get used to our trains being disrupted, our borders controls being breached and many more bodies being washed up on our beaches.