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Is 'The Americans' Season Two Ignoring a Crucial Religious Question?

Thompson on Hollywood By Terry Curtis Fox | Thompson on Hollywood May 16, 2014 at 4:56PM

Even Russian spies can't dis religion on American television. That's an odd lesson from the second season of "The Americans," a show that has built its well-deserved reputation by crossing boundary after boundary, which were once immutable on advertiser-supported networks. (Season two spoilers abound.)
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'The Americans'
'The Americans'

At no point do either Phillip or Elizabeth sit down with Paige and say, "look, we don't believe in this." They never detail the horrors that religion has caused. They never even turn to each other in private and agonize about not being able to raise their children in consonance with their beliefs. While Elizabeth's devotion to the Communist state is treated with great dignity and respect, Phillip feels angry and throws a vandalous tantrum at his daughter's spiritual awakening 

It's not as if the Jennings go to church as part of their cover. They keep at least that part of their true belief system intact. In this one instance, the show blinks -- behaving as if there were no secular Americans, rather than delving into the waters of what happens when secularists have a religious daughter. (The church that captivates Paige is also handled with kid gloves: despite the Reagan-era setting, it's not a part of the then-formative religious right but rather a liberal one that protests armaments, and at a time when actual liberal churches were sheltering undocumented migrants.)

For the past twenty years or so, television has been going where feature films fear to tread. Race was the subject of "Homicide" and its descendent, "The Wire." Class and income inequality were at the heart "Friday Night Lights" ten years before it became a national discussion. Cliche though it may be, the introduction of openly gay characters paved the way for gay marriage.

Television has always had a penchant for social drama (think "The Defenders," "Cosby," the collected works of Norman Lear), albeit often in code ("Star Trek," "M*A*S*H"). In our current age, it appears that we can now openly talk about anything.

But we can't: we can barely talk about abortion (imagine Maude getting an abortion today) and, as "The Americans" demonstrates, we cannot talk critically about religion at all. Programming that is supportive of religion -- from fuzzy spiritualism to the fundamentalist "Walking Dead" -- is not merely fine; it is welcome.

The pity is that, poised at the end of the cold and the beginning of the cultural wars, "The Americans" is in a perfect position to address the rise of the religious right without preaching on either side of the battle. Phillip and Elizabeth are, after all, a priori atheists. Their daughter is, presumably, sincerely religious and, deprived of community by her parents' occupation, precisely the sort of person who would find religious community attractive. Wonderful dramatic material, if only it were handled with as much sophistication as the sex and violence. 

Given the hold that fundamentalism currently has on American life, it's a debate that desperately needs to be had. Only not, it seems, on even the best American television.

This article is related to: The Americans, Keri Russell, Television, FX


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.