A couple of months ago, on the subway, I looked to my left and glimpsed an article that a person next to me was reading. My eye caught a headline - it was a review of the first season of FX's new show The Americans, which I haven't seen at that point.
Do you know that our eyes scan a text much faster than our brains can register the information we see, yet the familiar data will always stand out? I looked at the page for no more than 10 seconds, but I could've sworn that I saw a mentioning of Homeland there. So, I allowed myself to look again (I actually consider it rude when people read over each other's shoulders in public transportation, but couldn't resist in this case). My eyes returned me to the right place and I've read a verbose sentence, which amounted pretty much to the critic's opinion that, as far as spies-vs.-federal-agents shows go, in some ways The Americans was better than Homeland.
Being a devoted fan of Carrie Mathison's completely fucked up character, I decided to check out the FX's (co-produced by Steven Spielberg/Kathleen Kennedy's Amblin Entertainment) period piece (it's set during one of the Cold War's coldest periods, the 80s) about two KGB officers, who have been implanted into American suburbs as a married couple, Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings, sometimes in the 1960s. So, I watched (and enjoyed) the first 4 episodes of the show.
Alas, it's not Homeland (oh, the "professional" critics!): the intensity of the storytelling, the multi-layered subtlety of every single character of the Showtime's hit series - they are not there. I mean, the fact that I was able to stop after 4 episodes and indefinitely postpone watching the rest speaks for itself. I wouldn't be able to do it with Homeland. But it's definitely a very well-made, higher-quality entertainment. It succeeds in tricking the audience into the same fucked up experience of not wanting the main characters, clearly enemies and murderers, to get caught. I definitely plan to watch the rest at some point.
But it's uncanny how a human mind functions - its associative powers work in mysterious ways. The most persistent train of thought The Americans evoked in me had nothing to do with the spydom shenanigans; it was about the intricacies of social and cultural assimilation.
You see, the series' main characters, even though pretend to be US-born, are essentially a first-generation immigrant couple transplanted onto American soil, flawless and accentless English notwithstanding. No matter how intensive their training was back in Russia, it could not have prepared them for the lifestyle and social conditions so acutely different from their homeland. There is a flashback in one of the first episodes that takes us back to "the Jennings'" supposedly first night in America: They enter some motel room and marvel at the cool air coming out of the conditioning unit in the window. That's it. And there is nothing else needed to accentuate the dramatic shift - even the KGB generals, who blessed their clandestine future, didn't have air conditioners in their offices at the time.
Fifteen years later, at the show's "present" time, they don't marvel at the household conveniences anymore - people get used to comforts very quickly. However, their socio-psychological adaptation to American life is a completely different matter.
Phillip/Mischa (Matthew Rhys, an immensely talented and versatile Welsh actor, who himself is obviously assimilating quite well in Hollywood what with five years of playing Sally Field's gay son on Brothers & Sisters and now this series) has completely embraced the American culture and lifestyle. He obviously considers this suburb, this house, this cover business truly his own. For him, it feels like home here. He listens to the same music his very American kids do and speaks their lingo. He even annoys his teenage daughter at the mall in a goofy, American-dad kind of way: He tries on cowboy boots and does a bit of a country dancing to the music playing on the overhead system. He's assimilated to the point that the idea of defecting to FBI is not just plausible, it's desirable and he proposes it to his wife practically in the second episode.
This suggestion is met by Elizabeth/Nadezhda (a convincing Keri Russell, whose severe appearance effectively helps you to forget her soft and fuzzy Felicity past) with a scorn that goes way beyond the slighted sense of duty and reverence for the higher purpose of the "brighter future" she believes she serves. It's not just the ideology talking - you can feel that she LOVES Mother-Russia and still treats her life in America as an assignment.
Living and working in New York City, you deal with immigrants practically every single moment you are at work or in public. And I cannot even begin to tell you what a spectrum of various assimilation degrees one can observe, if one cares to look. Middle-aged and older people, of course, have more difficult time adjusting. But I know young people, who came to this country as teenagers from China, India, Pakistan, Russia, Middle East, went to high schools and colleges here, but have no interest in American culture.
They read only their native-language newspapers, watch only cable channels that show news and movies from their home-countries, even use specific nationally-oriented search engines. These people usually live in the areas predominately populated by their countrymen and frequently end up working for the businesses ran by them as well. It is virtually impossible to have a conversation with them about anything that we consider a common knowledge. They live here for decades, but they give you an impression that they just came from some remote planet. And the longing for their native land is just astonishing, even if it is the most oppressive place on Earth imaginable! Ok, Elizabeth/Nadezhda was sent here to spy, but why these other people came? For the conditioned air?
What I realized, after years of dealing with immigrants, was that the ones with higher ability to assimilate are generally more open-minded, more adaptable, and more cultured people. Those who read Faulkner, watched Coppola, and listened to Jimi Hendrix before they came to the States will continue immersing themselves into American culture. They are the ones who end up caring about the national politics and the future of their new home. The other ones - how can we consider them Americans, even if they carry the US passports?