In 2013, no show used pop music better than The Americans

In 2013, no show used pop music better than The Americans

For 2013’s best of TV list, The A.V. Club’s TV writers got together to discuss the shows that got us talking the most over the past 12 months. Between now and December 20, we’ll be unveiling those shows, one per publication day, culminating in our picks for the top three shows of the year. Don’t forget to vote for your favorites of the year in our readers’ poll.

In 2013, no TV show used pop music better than The Americans. FX’s period spy thriller didn’t just dial up an ’80s station on Pandora, either—music supervisor Janice Ginsberg dug through crates of Top 40 hits, new-wave and post-punk favorites, and power-pop obscurities in order to enrich and inform the paranoid tale of two Soviet spies posing as a married couple in suburban Washington, D.C. In that spirit, The A.V. Club compiled this “mixtape” of the show’s best musical moments—so pop this into your Walkman, Matthew Beeman.

1. Phil Collins, “In The Air Tonight” (Pilot)
It’s an old trick: A TV show announces itself with a piece of pop music, letting the strains of a familiar song set the mood, the scene, and the time period. The Americans does so with the red-light district saxophone of Quarterflash’s “Harden My Heart,” but that’s just the watery shot of era-appropriate cheese-rock accompanying the barroom operations of undercover KGB operative Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell). The stiffer stuff comes much later in the extended pilot, when The Americans dares to step on the toes of the grandaddy of pop-music/TV-thriller marriages: the stylish, unofficial Phil Collins video slipped into the Miami Vice pilot by its director, Thomas Carter. It’s bold, it’s brash, and—considering the urban legend that persists about the song’s inspiration— it’s kind of genius that it soundtracks footage of Elizabeth and her sham husband and fellow spy, Philip (Matthew Rhys) submerging the body of a defector. But that’s just the type of show The Americans announced itself as.

2. Fleetwood Mac, “Tusk” (Pilot)
Of course, the “In The Air Tonight” of The Americans premiere is actually the title track from Fleetwood Mac’s double-LP follow-up to Rumors. Interpolated with the Eastern European flourishes of Nathan Barr’s instrumental score, the song lends the proper sense of spy-movie dread to the Jennings’ first major narrative mindfuck. (And that’s well before Lindsey Buckingham, Christine McVie, and Stevie Nicks get into the pertinent lyrics about infidelity and duplicity.) “My initial inclination when I decided I wanted to set the pilot in the Cold War was to go ’70s, strictly because I loved the hair and the music,” creator Joe Weisberg told The A.V. Club at the end of The Americans’ first season. Certain factors—like the United States’ development of the Strategic Defense Initiative (a.k.a. the “Star Wars” program)—persuaded him to update to the 1980s instead. This leaves Jennings caught uncomfortably between the Carter administration’s peacekeeping efforts and the Reagan administration’s saber-rattling—a pressure not unlike that felt by Fleetwood Mac as it prepared Tusk, an AOR band outmoded (yet pushed forward) by new wavers and punk rockers dreaming up their own destructive equivalents of Star Wars.

3. Roxy Music, “Sunset” (“Gregory”)
The Americans isn’t unique in portraying the human cost of international conflict; as long as Homeland is still airing, it also won’t be alone in providing an evenhanded look at the costs on both sides of rhetorical lines, either. But the coda of the series’ third episode demonstrates the laser-like emotional precision that sets The Americans apart. Guided by a retiring Bryan Ferry warble, Thomas Schlamme’s camera glides over tableaus of difficult new beginnings: The Jennings making a serious go at marriage; the parents of their fallen comrade meeting their infant grandson; friendly neighborhood counterintelligence agent Stan Beeman coming across the body of the kid’s mother, rendered as collateral damage by the Soviets. As Ferry sings in “Sunset,” one last sigh of farewell, goodbye—and a pivotal vow from Beeman to protect the KGB mole recently placed in his care.

4. Echo & The Bunnymen, “The Pictures On My Wall” (“In Control”)
Dramatic irony is a deadly temptation for historical fiction. Sure, the viewer knows the truth behind the attempt on Ronald Reagan’s life, but wouldn’t it be neat to see how the characters react to the situation? “In Control” avoids becoming the Americans equivalent to Mad Men’s JFK assassination episode, because its characters are legitimately close to the crime. Until the authorities finger John Hinckley Jr., it’s entirely plausible that the crime is phase one of a KGB-led coup. The show’s natural state of paranoia is amplified by a flood of misinformation, press conferences with Secretary Of State Al “I’m in control here” Haig, and a cut from Echo & The Bunnymen’s post-punk classic Crocodiles. Turns out nothing’s burning and nothing’s changing (aside from Jodie Foster’s security detail), but that personal stockade Elizabeth unloads suggests that this story could’ve had a more explosive conclusion.

5. Fad Gadget, “The Box” (“Duty And Honor”)
Outwardly frigid and mechanical, Frank Tovey’s early Fad Gadget recordings should be to Reagan/Gorbachev-era espionage what a tremolo pedal is to the sexier heroics of the Kennedy/Khrushchev years. It also makes fittingly steely theme music for Elizabeth’s model of femme fatale, the hard-ass with a closet full of wigs and fists that can unnerve even a legendary TV intimidator like Margo Martindale. (“SHOW THEM YOUR FACE!”) A weaselly SDI worker with a gambling problem should be no match for her Joan Jett alter ego—he’s basically the self-imposed prisoner of Tovey’s song already. But Ginsberg’s choice of “The Box” is cannier than that. With her unyielding principles and impossible standards, Elizabeth’s in her own sort of trap. (Also: That SDI rat isn’t as stupid as he appears.)

6. The Cure, “Siamese Twins” (“Mutually Assured Destruction”)
For a series as fatalistic and emotionally vulnerable as The Americans, The Cure had to sneak onto the turntable at some point. It just so happens that the show got Pornography a year early, turning to the downward gothic spiral that ends the record’s first side when a bombing leaves parties on either side of the Iron Curtain feeling particularly defenseless and impotent. Never mind how beautifully the track’s titular image dovetails with the dual nature of the show’s principals—the devastating blow of deaths the KGB and the FBI did everything to prevent demands of such miserablist depths. Bonus points for the way Soviet double agent Nina describes espionage gamesmanship—“We want to everyone to stay right where they are and bleed everything they know out of them—forever”—in terms The Cure frontman Robert Smith would approve. They chose an eternity of this, indeed.

7. Roberta Flack, “To Love Somebody” (“Only You”)
The refreshing breeze of entertainment across The Americans’ Cold War tensions blows from the sense that its characters are the figures typically squeezed into the margins of the history books. The show manages to sell its domestic drama, because it’s so interested in pinpointing the stories of these forgotten foot soldiers—people like Gregory Thomas, an associate recruited as part of the KGB’s efforts to attract black militants in the 1960s. As such, he’s a man out of time, the most concentrated example of an Americans character finding difficulty with backing the ever-changing “cause” as it pushes toward nuclear brinksmanship and conveniently ignores what Gregory and his colleagues once fought for. That displacement can be heard in the Fleetwood Mac and Pete Townshend tracks that made their way into The Americans, but it’s most pronounced in Gregory’s swan song, Roberta Flack’s cover of “To Love Somebody.” Breaking from the synthesizers, drum machines, and British detachment, Flack’s bluesy reading of the Bee Gees’ tune also sums up Gregory’s romantic feelings for Elizabeth, another passion for which he’s willing to go down in a hail of gunfire.

8. Peter Gabriel, “Games Without Frontiers” (“The Colonel”)
The first season is slippery to the end: After the Jennings barely escape a sabotage, a final montage of the season’s events details the secrets and disclosures the main characters carry with them to the next round of The Americans. A pair of dossiers and a hidden wedding ring remake the rules of the not-so-silly games these people play, but as in the outlandish international game show Peter Gabriel sends up in “Games Without Frontiers,” there can only be one winner. This time it’s Elizabeth and Philip, who don’t just agree to reconcile (breaking an oath and doing so in their native tongue even)—they also keep their greatest secret hidden from their children. The use of “Games Without Frontiers” marks a full circle from the pilot (a skeletal, percussion-driven sound shared with “Tusk”; gated drums played by Phil Collins, just like “In The Air Tonight), but it’s also a taunt. If young Paige can get so close to unintentionally exposing her parents, imagine what someone actually looking for spies (like the FBI agent across the street) might find next year.