How “The Americans” Holds a Mirror to Current Events

April 9, 2017  |  Television

For organizations addressing issues of espionage, government transparency and corruption, the show’s storylines hit close to home.

Image Credit: Fast Company

Picture this: The FBI assembles a task force to investigate rumors of Russian spies living as suburban Americans, who have seamlessly infiltrated our country. In fact, an FBI counter-intelligence agent has suspicions about the family that lives next door, whose car is similar to one spotted at the scene of the kidnapping of a high-level Russian defector. He sneaks into their garage in the dark of night, opening the car’s trunk to reveal … nothing but a spare tire and some jumper cables. He creeps back out, oblivious to the presence of his neighbor, Philip, who is hidden in the shadows of the garage with his gun at the ready. After all, Philip and his wife, Elizabeth, had just disposed of the body of the man they’d been holding captive in the car trunk before they killed him.

Is this another development in the ongoing story of alleged Russian-American collusion, which The New Yorker called The New Cold War? No, but it could be. Which is why The Americans — the acclaimed TV show the storyline is from — is a remarkably timely window into issues of government transparency, corruption and espionage. For organizations working to elevate these issues, the show’s storylines provide a compelling way to communicate your message.

Now in its fifth season on FX, The Americans is set during the 1980s — the original Cold War — and often draws narrative inspiration from the real lives of Russians and Americans who engaged in espionage and counter-intelligence. Although the showrunners are adamant that The Americans never seeks to reflect current events, the similarities between the show’s storyline and the real-life drama that’s unfolding in America are uncanny. After all, reporters and other truth-tellers continue uncovering disturbing links between Russian President Vladimir Putin, U.S. President Donald Trump and their associates.

Although today’s news is plenty captivating on its own, The Americans demonstrates the unique power of TV and film to bring issues to life in vivid detail. The Americans immerses us deep inside the KGB, the FBI and the governments of both countries. From the first episode, we see the inner conflicts of Philip and Elizabeth Jennings — Russian spies who have been living as an American couple for 20 years — and the slow unraveling of the institutions in which they are interfering, not to mention their own emotional states. As the series unfolds, the cracks in both governments become deeper and wider, revealing a complex web of deceit and destruction. It’s impossible to ignore the parallels to what’s unfolding in the world right now.

Unless you’re caught up with The Americans, a minefield of spoilers is ahead. If you want a juicy binge, get to it. Then think about how you might use the show to help your audience viscerally appreciate what’s at stake when governments are corrupt, conspiring with enemies or lack appropriate transparency.

Although we love a good story for its entertainment value, we know it’s most effective as a communication tool if it’s tied to one of AndACTION’s strategic aims.

One of these strategic aims is to speak truth to power. Shows like The Americans provide an opportunity to showcase real-world issues, such as espionage. Consider the main storyline of Philip and Elizabeth, which holds a mirror to current allegations of Russian hacking in the U.S. Presidential election. In some ways, it’s reassuring to be reminded that spying on each other’s government is nothing new. But when the Jennings gain access to high-level American intelligence or start playing with bioterrorism, we are reminded that threats to American safety are a frighteningly real possibility when questionable motives are involved.

Fictional stories also can embolden us to challenge the status quo, as is the case with the storyline of the Jennings’ FBI agent neighbor, Stan Beeman. Although he’s suspicious of Philip and Elizabeth from the start, he forms a genuine bond with their family. As Stan’s storyline evolves, he goes on to have an affair with one of the FBI’s Russian assets, Nina, and befriends a KGB official, Oleg. Stan’s murky morality illustrates that the “good guy” isn’t always what he seems — nor are the “bad guys” always all bad, as we learn from Oleg. These are recurring themes in The Americans, where even the integrity of the FBI itself has been called into question, especially this season. When corruption or lack of transparency in government is at play, real life is no different from TV drama: Knowing who to believe can be very difficult. However, that doesn’t mean anyone should stop digging for the truth.

The Americans demonstrates how organizations can create empathy with stories. The human cost of espionage and government corruption is central to The Americans, in fact. Philip and Elizabeth carry a heavy emotional burden, no matter how loyal they may or may not be to Mother Russia. But the fallout is even worse for the people around them, especially their daughter, Paige, who eventually finds out who they really are. Then there are the “marks” in their spy games — the innocent people who get caught up when Elizabeth and Philip pretend to be people they are not. Fans of the show will immediately think of poor Martha, who finds herself falling in love and getting married to a man she ultimately discovers is a Russian spy. If you’re trying to reveal how government corruption and espionage hurts innocents, The Americans vividly portrays the very real casualties.

These human stories get to the heart of why The Americans, along with other TV shows and films, are such powerful elements of social change communications. If Russians have infiltrated the American government — a question investigators will continue to ask in the coming weeks and months — The Americans may show exactly what that looks like.

If you’re tuning in to The Americans this Tuesday night, consider live-tweeting the episode and tying the story to current events. Or how about some blog posts? You could create a series of posts that draws parallels between the show’s storyline and the events of the week as the real-life intrigue unfolds. Another blog strategy would be to play “what if”: What if it were revealed that a couple like the Jennings were living in America right now? What would that look like in terms of consequences and a government response? The Americans is fertile ground for communicating about some of the most pressing, and admittedly fascinating, issues of our times.

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By Amy Lynn Smith for AndACTION