The Americans is Homeland without the hawks or the hysteria

A thriller with a delicious setup - all credit to ITV for bagging it.

The Americans
ITV

When the FBI raided the New Jersey home of Vladimir and Lidiya Guryev – also known as Richard and Cynthia Murphy – in 2010, there was widespread amazement among their neighbours. Richard and Cynthia? Russian intelligence agents? Surely not. “They couldn’t have been spies,” one local told the press. “Look what she did with the hydrangeas.”

In The Americans (Saturdays, 10pm), a series vaguely inspired by the arrest of “Richard and Cynthia” (here, we have “Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings”) and eight other Russian operatives, hydrangeas have yet to put in an appearance, blooming or other­-wise. However, we have been treated to the sight of Elizabeth (Keri Russell) delivering a plate of brownies to a family across the street. “Home-made!” she trilled as she handed them over, brownies being almost as important to the American psyche as driving everywhere and super-sizing at the drive-through.

At her side during this important mission and wearing a smile as wide as Texas was her husband, Phillip (Matthew Rhys), who is something of a fan of country music. Moments earlier, we’d seen him at the mall, strutting his stuff in a shoe shop where he was buying cowboy boots.

Boy, you have to hand it to the KGB, don’t you? The curriculum back at HQ must be quite something: how to wear a disguise; how to send secret messages; how to kill your enemies; how to bake brownies and line-dance.

Still, this is a great series: slick and entertaining. It’s a touch preposterous that an FBI agent just happens to be Elizabeth’s and Phillip’s new neighbour; of all the suburban streets in Washington, he would choose the one where a couple of Soviet spies have been embedded for the past 16 years.

However, it would be churlish to complain about this, given how delicious the setup is. It’s 1981: Fleetwood Mac are on the stereo and Ronald Reagan is in the White House. The spies wear high-waisted jeans and (for her) the garment formerly known as “a body” – a ridiculous, stretchy top pulled tight by means of plastic poppers between the thighs.

I like the central ambiguity of the series – we inevitably find ourselves rooting for the two Russian agents, hoping they won’t be caught – and I love the tension that flows from a marriage in which one partner is far more devoted to the motherland than the other (Phillip periodically flirts with the idea of defection).

The couple’s all-American children, Henry and Paige, know nothing of their parents’ origins, which makes Elizabeth’s ascetic tendencies – she disguises her socialism as a kind of parsimony – rather confusing. “Mom doesn’t like new things,” says Phillip, as if her politics were just a matter of taste.

The flashbacks (I usually dread flashbacks, being fearful of bad wigs) are well done. In the first episode, we saw the two of them in the USSR in the early 1960s having their marriage arranged by a KGB colonel; then we saw them arriving in the US in 1965, Elizabeth still unwilling to sleep with her new husband, despite this being a vital element of the role she had agreed to play (children will be the best disguise of all).

In their motel room – look, air conditioning! – they discussed their first impressions of the satanic US. Already Philip was doubting what his masters had told him. America wasn’t so bad, was it? His wife was unimpressed. “There is a weakness in the people,” she said. “I can feel it.”

How fantastic that it’s the female character who is the true hardliner and thus the one who finds it easier to kidnap, kill and even warn the high-ups in Moscow of Phillip’s deficiencies. And yet they are bonded: by their children, by their exile, by the memory of their youthful political optimism. Who will crack first?

All of this seems much more interesting to me – and much less dubiously freighted – than the saga of Carrie and Brody in Homeland and all credit to ITV for bagging it. (The Americans is made by DreamWorks and has already been recommissioned for a second series.) This is Homeland without the hawks or the hysteria – and much better for it.

Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys in "The Americans".

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 10 June 2013 issue of the New Statesman, G0

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Women don’t make concept albums: how BBC Four’s When Pop Went Epic erases popular music’s diverse history

Why are the only albums blessed with the grandiose description of “conceptual” the ones made by white men?

Tonight, BBC Four airs a documentary exploring the history of the concept album called When Pop Went Epic: The Crazy World of the Concept Album. Presented by prog rock veteran Rick Wakeman, the programme set out to “examine the roots of the concept album in its various forms”, as well as cycling through the greatest examples of the musical phenomenon.

“Tracing the story of the concept album is like going through a maze,” says dear old Rick incredulously, while ambling round a literal maze on screen, just so we fully get the symbolism. But if the history of concept albums is a labyrinth, Wakeman has chosen a gymnastic route through it, one filled with diversions and shortcuts that studiously avoid the diversity of the format’s history. He imagines the concept album to begin with Woody Guthrie’s 1940s record about poverty and class struggle in America, Dust Bowl Ballads, following on with Frank Sinatra’s Only the Lonely (1958) and The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds (1966), before moving on to big hitters like Sgt Pepper and Tommy. It quickly seems apparent that the first albums blessed with the grandiose description “conceptual” are the ones made by white men, and Wakeman’s history credits them with inventing the form.

What about Duke Ellington’s Black, Brown and Beige (1943-58), a history of American blackness? Miles Davis’s Milestones, a 1958 LP-length experiment with modal harmonies? Sun Ra’s particular blend of science fiction and Egyptian mythology on albums like The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra (1961)? When Wakeman reaches what he considers to be the first from a black artist, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On , he notes that it “comes from a musical culture where the concept album was quite alien”.

Certainly, Motown was a towering monument to the power of the single, not the album, but we know that one of Gaye’s greatest inflences was Nat King Cole: why not mention his 1960 concept album, centring  on a protagonist’s varied attempts to find The One, Wild Is Love? Wakeman does recognise the importance of black concept albums, from Parliament’s Mothership Connection to Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, but his history suggest black concept albums begin with Gaye, who is building on the work of his white predecessors.

It takes rather longer for Wakeman to pay his respects to any conceptual woman. 53 minutes into this 59 minute documentary, we discover our first concept album by a woman: Lady Gaga’s The Fame. The only other female artist discussed is Laura Marling, who, perhaps not coincidentally, is also a talking head on the documentary. That’s two albums by women out of the 25 discussed, given cursory attention in the last five minutes of the programme. It feels like a brief footnote in the epic history of conceptual albums.

Jean Shepherd’s Songs of a Love Affair is perhaps the earliest example of a female-led concept album that springs to my mind. A chronological narrative work exploring the breakdown of a marriage following an affair, it was released in 1956: Shepherd has a whole two years on Sinatra. Perhaps this is a little obscure, but far more mainstream and influential works are equally passed over: from themed covers albums like Mavis Staples’ duet record Boy Meets Girl to more conventionally conceptual works.

The Seventies was a decade that did not solely belong to pasty men rambling about fantasy worlds. Female-fronted concept albums flourished, from Manhole by Grace Slick, conceived as a soundtrack to a non-existent movie of the same name (1974) and Joni Mitchell’s mediations on travel in Hejira (1976), to Bjork’s debut, an Icelandic covers album (1977), and Heart’s Dog & Butterfly (1978).

The Eighties were no different, featuring gems like Grace Jones’ Slave to the Rhythm (1985), which pulled a single track into a wild variety of different songs; the Japanese distorted vocal experiment Fushigi by Akina Nakamori (1986), and Kate Bush’s playful faithfulness to A and B sides of a record, producing “The Ninth Wave” as a kind of mini concept album on Hounds of Love (1985).

Wakeman skips over the Nineties in his programme, arguing that conceptual works felt hackneyed and uncool at this time; but the decade is peppered with women making thematically unified works from Madonna’s Erotica (1992) to Hole’s mediations on physical beauty and trauma, Live Through This (1994) and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998).

Since then, women arguably led the field of conceptual albums, whether through the creation of alter egos in works like Marina and the Diamonds’ Electra Heart, Beyoncé’s I Am… Sasha Fierce or through focusing on a very specific theme, like Kate Bush’s 50 Words for Snow or in their storytelling, like Anaïs Mitchell’s Hadestown and Aimee Mann’s The Forgotten Arm. Wakeman includes no black women artists in his programme, but today, black women are making the most experimental and influential conceptual records in modern pop, from Janelle Monáe and Kelis to Erykah Badu, and, of course, Beyoncé. It’s no coincidence that Lemonade, which would have been considered an abstract conceptual album from a male artist, was immediately regarded as a confessional piece by most tabloids. This issue extends far beyond one documentary, embedded in the fabric of music writing even today.

Of course, concept album is a slippery term that is largely subjective and impossible to strictly define: many will not agree that all my examples count as truly conceptual. But in his programme, Wakeman laments that the phrase should be so narrowly defined, saddened that “the dreaded words ‘the concept album’ probably conjure up visions of straggly-haired rockers jabbering on about unicorns, goblins and the end of the world”. Unfortunately, he only confirms this narrative with a self-serving programme that celebrates his musical peers and friends, and ignores the pioneers who would bring variety and colour to his limited classification. 

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.