In the Beginning: A look at The Americans brilliant opening sequence, with asides

When I was a kid, most TV show opening credit sequences looked like this:

Or, this:

So much so, in fact, that I would often practice my “turn, look to the camera and smile” move in preparation for the day that I had an opening credit sequence of my own.

There have been many, many great credit sequences over the years but in my estimation we are in both a golden age of the great television show but also of the credit sequence. Every week we are treated to amazing opening sequences like the ones for Mad Men, Game of Thrones, Homeland and Treme. For my money, though, the best credit sequence currently on television is the one for The Americans:

The credit sequence for The Americans is so great because it sets up the mystery of the show in a series of images, many repeated in one way or another, throughout 25 seconds or so. Where an opening sequence like the incredible one for Game of Thrones demands that you have seen an episode or read the books before you really get it, the opening of The Americans is welcoming, if destabilizing, in that it wants you to consider the clues it sets out and solve a mystery in half a minute. Images of Russia (lots of hammers and sickles) and the US (the Iwo Jima Memorial) are constantly and quickly juxtaposed against each other to set us in time. So, for one thing, we know it is likely Cold War 1980s. Plus, we see images of kids hula hooping and jazzercise and Russian dancing and baseball. We see the classic Atari game Missile Command, a beauty queen on a car and a kid sitting on Santa’s lap for good measure. Yep, definitely the 80s. But then there are some other weird things thrown in there too like people handing off documents to each other and binoculars and explosions and people running into ambulances and passport photos. Things are very off-kilter and strange and scary and this must be a show about spies. Then, there is a bit with astronauts and space stuff to remind us of the Space Race and Star Wars. Then, oddly and off-putting, there are some photos of babies. Then, some photos of Russian and US politicians seemingly pitted against each other on the left and right sides of the screen. There are some buildings representing each country. Then a photo of a family replaced by the faces of another family. Then a big explosion and the title. The Americans. Except the “c” is replaced with a hammer and sickle.

(Aside #1: In the amazing pilot episode of the show there is no credit sequence. Instead, the show employs a killer use of the Fleetwood Mac song “Tusk”. The use of the song is so amazing that I was hoping, after watching the first episode, that “Tusk” would be used as the opening theme song. I’m sure the expense of music rights was a factor but, damn, did I eat a bit of crow after seeing the actual opening).

The opening sequence is mysterious but it tells us enough about the show that we are prepared for what is to come. The show ends up being a drama about a seemingly normal couple called the Jennings (Elizabeth and Phillip) who live in suburban California Washington, DC. They have two young kids named Paige and Henry. They are the perfect family. Of course, it turns out Elizabeth and Phillip (SPOILER ALERT) are actually KGB spies, hiding this information from the rest of the world as well as their kids. They have been expertly trained for years to act American, to be American, without ever forgetting where they come from and where their duty lies. The central mystery (at least in the first season) is who the Jennings actually are and how the past influences their relationship with each other as well as those around them. The Americans is daring to ask who is actually American and what does that mean.

What the credit sequence doesn’t show us is some of what I think is so appealing about The Americans as a show, though. For one, the show is fun. It is more Alias than 24, with wigs and disguises galore. There is a degree of darkness, to be sure, but that darkness is cut by something close to humor. The show is serious and it is full of stakes but it isn’t plodding or obsessed with violence. If the connection to Justified says anything (both have ties to Graham Yost) it is that the show going to ask you to question whether good guys with guns are really good. But also have a good time while doing it. The show isn’t so desperate for you to stay so on top of the details that you won’t understand it if you aren’t paying über close attention. The show has fun with its audience by throwing out hints and clues, especially in its dynamite pilot episode, that unfold throughout the course of the show. If you catch them, great, if you don’t, you will still be in for a wild ride (plus if you know anything at all out the geographical based popularity of the NHL you will be in for a treat). The show is smart and it expects you to keep up but it’s not as fast and loose with references as the opening might make you think.

(Aside #2: Part of the fun is directly related to the fact that the Jennings live across the street from FBI agent, Stan Beeman and his family. You see, everyone is a spy, even if it isn’t their job. Stan, played by Noah Emmerich – who has been in about a billion other things – is a buttoned up agent with mysteries of his own. Emmerich is superb in the role and he plays the part with a sort of angry calm and humanity. The Jennings are all surface where you think they would be hidden. Beeman is hidden without a disguise).

The show is also not, at its core, as cold and slick as the opening might suggest, although some of the characters might be. Instead, once you get inside the show, it feels like an 80’s throwback. It is as much a spy show as it is a family drama and a study in relationships, sometimes gone sour and sometimes moving towards something like love and understanding. The interiors of the family houses, where much of the show takes place, remind me of the interiors on thirtysomething (a late 80s show, to be sure, but I think the comparisons are there), always glowing, warm and cozy. These spaces are safe and loving. The Jennings have just as many issues as the Beemans and every other American family. They are all dealing with secrets and lies and covering things up from each other. But there is love there, in those houses.

(Aside #3: Kudos to the casting agent who chose Holly Taylor to play the daughter, Paige. If anyone ever looked like a kid who existed in the 1980s it is her. I just assume she was born in 1975 and frozen until now to play this role).

The one image that always sears onto my brain is at the tail end of the credits. It’s an image of the Jennings family but their photos are taped over what I imagine is an image of a Russian family, sitting amongst rubble and ruin, from years before. It is the image of a happy Phillip that always sticks with me, especially next to Elizabeth’s stoic one. His eerie smiling face is looking directly out at the camera. He’s practiced for that moment for years.

9 thoughts on “In the Beginning: A look at The Americans brilliant opening sequence, with asides

  1. Pingback: A Good Person: Musings on faith, lies and belief in Season 2 of The Americans | The Golden Age of Television

  2. Pingback: WTA 15-The Americans Opening Credits | Watching the Americans Podcast

  3. Hey,
    Nice post. I’d add one thing and correct another thing. I’d add that one of my favorite pieces to the puzzle in the opening credits is that soon after each actor’s name pops up in red and written in Russian, it is redacted, covered over by English letters in black.
    As for the correction, and this is crucial, the Jennings do not live in “suburban California.” The show is necessarily and firmly routed in the Washington DC political culture, and wouldn’t work outside of the DC area. Note that Phillip’s new Camero sports a Virginia license plate, and exterior shots of the Federal Bureau of Investigation building in DC is shown whenever the Jennings’ neighbor Stan Berman or Phillip’s/Clark’s mark/”wife” Martha, FBI Secretary, are shown at work.
    At any rate, thanks for the post. Be well! Dana

  4. My favorite part of the opening credits is when “We the people” comes on the screen and is followed by “мы народ”….which is a direct Russian translation.

  5. This might be wrong, but can anyone else see a split second shot of agent gaad with a gun running, he’s wearing some sort of 80s sports jacket. Just after the actor Matthew Rhys’s name comes up.

  6. [quote](Aside #3: Kudos to the casting agent who chose Holly Taylor to play the daughter, Paige. If anyone ever looked like a kid who existed in the 1980s it is her. I just assume she was born in 1975 and frozen until now to play this role).[/quote]
    Like the article, but I hope they shot the casting agent. Holly Taylor apparently has only two facial expressions she can do… that is too little for six seasons, by far the worst part of this otherwise brilliant show.

  7. Does anyone know the name of the opening theme song? It pops up during the show in various arrangements. It’s beautiful and haunting at the same time.

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